'Punchdrunk isn't just theatrical any more'

Felix Barrett Felix Barrett
Posted: Mon Jul 11 2011

Hits in New York and Manchester and big plans in London… Punchdrunk founder Felix Barrett tells all.

What's going on with Punchdrunk? In the decade or so since the theatre pioneers first came to a warehouse near you, Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle's company has spawned some unforgettable pieces of event theatre - and a slicker, diversified brand.

The Hackney-based company's current shows in the capital are corporate or community exercises: 'The Black Diamond' (a promo with Stella Artois Black) is unfolding in instalments in Shoreditch; while 'The Uncommercial Traveller', an audio-theatre ramble culminating in an intimate performance from the Arcola's over-50s group is a more rooted Dickens-inspired trip through the East End.

Punchdrunk's headline shows are housed elsewhere: in New York, where Hitchock/'Macbeth' mashup 'Sleep No More' has proved wildly popular; and in Manchester, where Barrett's brilliant kids-only show, 'Doctor Who' adventure 'The Crash of the Elysium', is offering six-to-12 year olds thrills they'd never get from Saturday night on the couch.

When I caught up with Punchdrunk's buoyantly enthusiastic director Felix Barrett, he argues - convincingly - that the noughties' most inventive theatre company hasn't lost its edge. 'It's not a sell-out to use a big brand,' he insists, referring to the the Whovian fever that's made 'Elysium' a hot prepubescent ticket.

To get the most out of Punchdrunk's sinister installations, it helps if you know the story. With 'Doctor Who', 'Children even know the myths behind it,' says Barrett. That's vital so that the children can be at the front line of the adventure. 'They are the heroes. They have to be.'As for the corporate work, 'it's a way of testing ideas like, can you be in show without knowing it? Can you live inside a show and still hang out with your family? What are the ways you can digest your theatrical content?'

Virtual reality is where we take our risks now - and it's ironic that the search-and-recommend structure of the web, so often fingered as the killer of live experience, has helped inspire a theatre that's so tactile, visceral and imaginative. Punchdrunk builds a fantasy world which you actively smell, touch and explore.

True, the danger is an illusion and your theatre-quest exists in a closed system with compulsory masks and in-house rules. But it fosters curiosity, excitement and exploration. 'You read all these stats about the amount of time children spend playing video games,' says Barrett, who puts his career down to being taken to see 'bloody amazing' theatre while at Alleyn's School in Dulwich. 'Without my teachers, I wouldn't be standing on top of a warehouse in New York right now.'

Punchdrunk's gated cultural playgrounds un-gate the imagination - something that's blindingly evident when you see a bunch of boiler-suited six-to-12 year olds invading a spaceship under the deadly surveillance of Weeping Angels. 'Elysium', which banishes parents to the background, takes emotional risks with kids which are way more complex than your average rollercoaster ride.

'When we first tested “Elysium” at London primary schools,' recalls Barrett, 'we found kids were crying so we pulled them out. Then we realised that was totally the wrong thing to do. We wanted it to be on the edge. Seeing the jubilation when they agree to stick with it, come out and punch the air, was a profound experience for us.'

'Elysium' is the first purpose-built portable show the company's done. It will be touring post-Manchester International Festival: 'It's in tents so it can go to parkland,'says Barrett. 'Creatively, for me, it's all about the right space. We can't force a show in. We have to listen to a building and respond to it.' Space is one big reason why the company hasn't had a big London hit since 'The Masque of the Red Death' in 2008 (last year's 13-performance opera collaboration, 'The Duchess of Malfi', excited fans who crashed the ENO website and snapped up the tickets in six hours, but disappointed critics). 'It's a nightmare getting the work on, full-stop,' says Barrett. ' We'd love to have “Sleep No More” in London but it'd be hard to find a property. The scale of the work has got huge. We need a long time on-site beforehand to get it right.'

Despite their cult popularity, Punchdrunk shows don't make money. 'I'm not sure we've ever done a show that's broken even,' says Barrett. But a major London show is planned for spring 2012 . 'Londoners have a working knowledge of our conventions. So we want to do something bigger and with more layers,' says Barrett. 'It'll be double anything we've done before. There aren't many places in Zone 1 or 3 that we can afford. But we've got a few target spaces and we've cleared our diary. When a building comes up, we can leap into it.'

In the meantime, there's Punchdrunk Travel to look forward to. Barrett has been on 'a bit of a sabbatical' of late, partly to pursue other projects, such as staging Shakira's world tour. His stag do also sounds exceptionally time-consuming: when your best man is Punchdrunk's enrichment director, you shouldn't be surprised if you go on a journey that starts with a key in the post and ends, after months of clues and challenges, with 30 men in masks kidnapping you then forcing you to unlock a trunk full of your most embarassing possessions. 'It was the best show I've seen in the last ten years,' says Barrett.

This, too, has functioned as R&D for Punchdrunk's next big ambition, to get into your life - or to 'let the theatrical world intervene in the real one'. Punchdrunk Travel will, they hope, seed that thrill abroad. 'You'll get a date, a time and a locker key; turn up at an airport with three days' luggage and follow instructions from there.'

Having pioneered theatre's equivalent of a search engine, Barrett can't wait to get cracking on Punchdrunk's next phase, which seems more like a tactile riff on social media or gaming - though he says the comparisons are coincidental and the next phase will, if anything, 'deconstruct' those mechanisms. Is he back for good? 'Yes. Punchdrunk isn't just theatrical any more. It's got so many disciplines and media. Everything I'm excited about is Punchdrunk.'