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Review: Viola's Room by Punchdrunk


The globally acclaimed immersive theatre producer debuts a new, intimate production in their Woolwich home that has no performers, no white masks, and an audience with no shoes. Our review of Viola's Room...


Immersive Rumours received a complimentary ticket to this show and as such, are

disclosing this information before our review of Viola's Room. All thoughts are our own.

Audience participating in Viola's Room

Photo: Julian Abrams


It's only been nine months since audiences were last invited inside One Cartridge Place in Woolwich to experience a Punchdrunk show. Set across two sprawling buildings at their new London home, The Burnt City dwarfed every other immersive production in the country in both scope and scale. It was a welcome return of the company's flagship white mask shows, with guests free to follow whichever of the twenty-five-plus characters they desired over three hours.


In nearly every way possible, their latest show, Viola's Room, rejects the format fans had waited so long for before their return to London. Thematically, it's a show that touches on absence and loss, and it's chosen to make everything the company is best known for - white masks, large casts, looping structures - absent too.


Viola's Room production still

Photo: Julian Abrams


Based on a gothic short story entitled The Moon Slave by Barry Pain, Viola's Room follows the story of Princess Viola, a teenage girl who finds herself drawn to the centre of a maze one evening and compulsively dances for hours on end after surrendering her free will to the Moon.


Adapted by Booker Prize-shortlisted Daisy Johnson, Punchdrunk's version reframes the original story by first welcoming us into the teenage bedroom of a different Viola growing up in the early 1990s. With Massive Attack CDs on her bedside table and posters of The Smashing Pumpkins on her walls, her empty bedroom is revisited several times throughout the show, first falling into disarray and later being packed up entirely. In typical Punchdrunk fashion, there's no clear answer for why she's disappeared from her childhood home, but the clues we do get imply a fate not dissimilar to the Princesses'.


Our introduction to Princess Viola is framed as part of a bedtime story. Narrated by Helena Bonham Carter and delivered via headphones, we hear of the Princess's first interactions with Hugo, the boy she later becomes engaged to, and how she pushed him into the mud while playing. We hear of the day her parents passed away, and the house was covered in black drapes to mourn their loss. We hear of how she would while away the days dancing in the hallways of the mansion. Above us, a swirl of cloud-shaped lights appears before a play tent in the corner of the room is illuminated.


Viola's Room production still

Photo: Julian Abrams


During the pre-show briefing it's made clear that we need to always 'follow the light'—while it's an instruction for us, it was a compulsion for Viola. Crawling through the play tent, we enter Princess Viola's world.


In Viola's Room, audiences are required to traverse the set without shoes or socks. Walking barefoot for the duration of the hour-long show, the feeling of ever-changing surfaces underfoot is wonderfully tactile - shag carpets soon make way for hard concrete, uneven wooden floorboards, and ankle-deep sand. Having our exposed feet be in contact with all these surfaces throughout the show not only physically connects us to the world, but evokes a feeling of vulnerability in the audience.


Viola's Room production still

Photo: Julian Abrams


The first half of Viola's Room contains several wonderfully crafted miniatures. Lights in her mansion's windows flicker on and off, charting her movements through the building, and streetlights on the garden path leading down to the hedge maze illuminate her running to heed the Moon's call. As we progress through the story, the tiny objects and spaces we first saw in these early moments as observers become our reality, writ large before us. The most striking, an oak tree at the centre of the maze, seen first in miniature grows to the height of a house by the show's conclusion.


It's little surprise that with no performers, the sound and lighting instead play a huge part in creating the foreboding atmosphere that permeates the show. While scenes in 90s Viola's bedroom are soundtracked by eery songs from the likes of Soundgarden, Tori Amos and Massive Attack, the standout musical moment is in the show's second half as a crucifix of Jesus emerges from the darkness to O Fortuna. Helena Bonham Carter's narration is the one constant throughout Viola's Room. While it's well delivered, there's always a sense of detachment between us as listeners and the story we're being told. The absence of anyone besides the groups of six that experience the show together furthers this detachment as if we're ghosts walking through a memory.


Viola's Room production still

Photo: Julian Abrams


While the looping narrative of Punchdrunk's show is absent from Viola's Room, there is one element that seems to repeat over and over again. In a similar way to the black hallways of The Burnt City that sat between Troy and Mycenae - totally devoid of theming - Viola's Room has numerous white corridors with little more than pieces of fabric draped at eye level. When so much of the set has been crafted with painstaking attention to detail, these corridors seem to do nothing but move audiences to another area without doing anything to build out the world further.


Viola's Room isn't the first time Punchdrunk have tackled The Moon Slave. In 2000, when the company was still in its infancy, it staged a version for an audience of four people over four nights. Just like Viola's Room, the show had a reliance on darkness and selective lighting, a pre-recorded soundscape delivered via headphones and next to no cast. The success of that show left a lasting impression on Punchdrunk's Creative Director, Felix Barrett, who described it as "the most pure, distilled version of a Punchdrunk show". It's little wonder that 24 years later, they've decided to revisit the idea for a much wider audience to experience for the first time.


While it likely won't develop the same devoted following that its large-scale shows have, Punchdrunk has delivered a show that lives up to its usual high standard. While we'd recommend familiarising yourself with the source material first to get the most out of it, Viola's Room is an experience people should dive into (bare) feet first.


★★★★

 

Viola's Room will run until 18th August at One Cartridge Place in Woolwich. Tickets are on sale via punchdrunk.com, priced from £28.50 per person.


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1 Comment


Austin Wong
Austin Wong
Jul 08

I loved this show. It was truly a different experience from their masked shows but it still felt like a Punchdrunk show with the detailed rooms and excellent soundtrack and sense of ominous foreboding. One small correction you might want to make to the review is that the 90s songs include one by Tori Amos, not PJ Harvey.

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