Right from the outset, Kabeiroi said it was different. Since 2000, Punchdrunk’s epic immersive projects have come to define the genre.
Its last, adult, London show, The Drowned Man (2014), set in 1960s’ Hollywood, was also its largest to date.
Spanning four floors of a disused Paddington postal building, audience members wandered through opulent scenery, choosing which characters to follow at any given time; the idea being that everyone created their own narrative.
While Punchdrunk’s cult following has grown over time, critics have sometimes accused the group of moving beyond innovation into its own formulaic conventions.
It was perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that Kabeiroi ditched the signature audience masks and set out to wrong-foot everyone from the start.
Punchdrunk director, Felix Barrett once said: “If audiences get used to the rules, change them.” They did this from the outset by only releasing 432 pairs of tickets by ballot.
This was exclusively a “two-person experience”; no more, no less and, indeed Kabeiroi, running until November 5, is sold out.
Pregnant women, “individuals who are claustrophobic or have a nervous disposition” and people who can’t follow instructions in English were also warned to stay away.
While past Punchdrunk productions were purely about characters, Kabeiroi shifts the focus back onto you.
Based extremely loosely on Aeschylus’s lost tragedy about an Ancient Greek cult, the production’s central theme, reinforced throughout, lies in the simple idea of challenging yourself by diving into the eye of the storm.
After The Drowned Man’s pomp and glitz, Kabeiroi begins with extended six-hour walking tour, taking in some of London’s most forgettable locations along the way.
As characters merge seamlessly with the real world, their sporadic appearances force you to do a double-take at everything around you.
Oblivious passers-by sometimes appeared odd and threatening, and I had the near-constant the feeling that we were being watched – which probably we were.
At the same time, the hours walking round London following instructions meant sometimes it felt tedious, tiring and cold.
My partner and I regularly discussed the feeling that we were “doing it wrong”. It was in some ways these ordinary feelings which made everything seem more real.
The entire production left me wondering how far directors will go in the future, to make people really feel.
Mounting confusion, tiredness, fear, alarm and euphoria acting in turn, and then side by side, made for a visceral, three-dimensional experience.
The demands upon audiences, in some ways left me wondering what a show like this actually hopes to achieve, and why we will keep coming back (which we will). Is this warped Western self-indulgence, or does it go back to the Ancient Greek idea of catharsis?
Kabeiroi was imperfect; there were occasional glitches (to be expected perhaps for such an ambitious project) and on occasion there was a sense that even the production was unsure what it was.
At the same time, this uncertainty and imperfection played into its power. The show finally did what Punchdrunk has always done in the past – challenged its audience to experience drama at a totally different level.
Ambitious, imperfect and innovative, Punchdrunk’s immersive Kabeiroi challenges its audiences and dares to be different.