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Theatre Review: Viola’s Room 

audience member, punchdrunk viola s room photo julian abrams

Punchdrunk is dedicated to keeping us guessing. After last year’s epic show, The Burnt City, this second piece in the company’s vast space in Woolwich is a completely different undertaking. It’s a smaller show, just an hour long and without actors. Loosely based on Barry Pain’s short story The Moon-Slave and adapted for a new audience by Booker Prize-shortlisted author Daisy Johnson, this is a gothic tale that invites the audience to feel it with all our senses.

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There’s a sense of mystery from the start. We’re put into groups of six at round tables in a holding area for a briefing, during which we’re warned that we’ll be in the dark, that we will need to crawl through small spaces and that if we’re not comfortable with that we should leave now. Oh, and that we’ll be barefoot. We’re issued with headphones, relieved of our footwear and instructed to follow the light at all times.

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What follows is an atmospheric and eerie journey through Viola’s life, narrated by Helena Bonham Carter (she’s cleverly cast, her distinctive voice buttery and captivating). We find ourselves in a girl’s bedroom at some point in the 1990s, all pop posters and blue-tac, fairy lights and teenage ephemera, with a shag pile carpet underfoot (we’re barefoot, remember). Keeping with our group, we follow dark and twisting corridors with cushioned walls and floors, returning to the same bedroom several times to find it in different states, eventually full of packing boxes as Viola’s story emerges. It’s a dark, folklore-style tale that takes in ballet shoes, a maze with a clearing and a large tree at the centre of it and a dreamlike compulsion that Viola feels at night, drawing her into the maze. We follow her gothic fantasy through confusing and disorientating spaces – sometimes in pitch black – revealing a story with an undercurrent of doom. 

It’s all brilliantly constructed, full of surprises and the visual detail that we’re used to. Punchdrunk attracts superfans – discussion in my group centres around how many times everyone has seen previous shows, and who has experienced the famed one-to-ones. Viola’s Room feels experimental, even for Punchdrunk – and it’s not clear whether we can really call it theatre because what is theatre without actors? It’s a sensory experience that defies definition but remains imprinted in my mind.

Until 18 August; One Cartridge Place SE18 6ZR

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