Ottery St Mary in Devon sits a dozen miles east of Exeter and 250 years outside the modern world. Every year, on Bonfire Night, the town stages a coming-of-age ritual in which dozens of locals sprint through the streets, each with a fire-belching tar barrel on their shoulders and rudimentary cloth sacks over their hands for protection. Runners can be as young as seven years old, but it starts getting serious when a boy becomes a teenager: a successful carry of a full-size barrel when you are 16 or 17 is proof that you are now a man. No one knows when exactly the practice started, and no one has any idea why the people of Ottery St Mary do it.
Felix Barrett, the founder and artistic director of the British theatre company Punchdrunk, first witnessed the Tar Barrels of Ottery St Mary 20 years ago, when he was a drama student at Exeter University. The town of 5,000 can swell to almost 20,000 people; the vibe is boozed-up mountain finish of the Tour de France, with a mob of spectators parting a fraction of a second before the barrel charges through. “So, you’ve got a kid who’s terrified, and he’s panicking because it’s a big thing and he’s got all his mates around to push the crowd out of the way,” Barrett recalls. “I saw people getting punched because they were in the way. Then also it’s lucky to touch him and there was a girl on her boyfriend’s shoulders reaching out and her hair went out and woomph! — it went up.”
Barrett, who on this sunny afternoon in July is sitting cross-legged with a beer in a park in Tottenham, across the road from Punchdrunk’s headquarters in an old futon factory, shakes his head. His career has in one sense been spent trying to recreate the exhilaration of that night in Ottery St Mary for other people. “It’s inherently theatrical,” he says. “I went there because I was curious and I realised that this was as gripping as any piece of outdoor theatre, because it was live and it was so true. Even though I’m a theatre director, I love the idea of theatrical situations out of context. And this was a large-scale spectacle and outdoor theatre, just not by rehearsed performers as we know it, but by a community.”
Punchdrunk celebrates its 20th birthday this year, and it has had a radical, far-reaching impact on British theatre. Barrett is a pioneer of immersive, site-specific productions, often in large, unexpected spaces, such as disused offices and warehouses. The idea is to take an audience out of its comfort zone, creating an experience that will be energising, unsettling but most of all unforgettable. In Punchdrunk’s early days, Barrett created a show, The Moon Slave, that took months of intricate orchestration, but played for one night only to four people. Another “experiment”, inspired by Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, was performed on a stretch of A-road in Devon between midnight and 1am, the 40 actors in the hills occasionally lit up by the headlights of cars speeding by at 60mph.
Immersive theatre is well-established now — it got to a point where some critics and audiences may be desperate to return to actual theatres with actual seats — but Barrett has a knack for creating singular, unrepeatable experiences that tap in perfectly to our experience economy. Punchdrunk is part of theatrical movement that has included other experiential companies such as Shunt, You Me Bum Bum Train and Secret Cinema, but its ambition and success in scaling its work, as well as its ability to attract support in the early days from the National Theatre and latterly corporate sponsors, means that it has long left the margins and become one of the most influential players in theatre in Britain and around the world.
Punchdrunk’s best-known work, Sleep No More, a macabre, mostly non-verbal retelling of Macbeth, started life in a dilapidated Victorian school building in London in 2003, but has now been rolled out globally, taking over three abandoned warehouses in lower Manhattan in 2011 and a five-storey site in Shanghai in 2016, both of which had been in residency until Covid-19 landed.
Ah yes, Covid. Save from perhaps being a cruise ship captain, is there a more treacherous business to be in than theatre these days? In June, almost 100 cultural figures — from Phoebe Waller-Bridge to Tom Stoppard — signed a desperate letter to Boris Johnson warning that theatre, opera and dance were “on the brink of ruin”. It cited research suggesting that 70 per cent of British theatres would run out of money by the end of 2020 without significant financial assistance. In August, theatre trade union Bectu reported that redundancies in the industry had reached 5,000. Even with support, it was clear that the fallout in the sector would be felt for many years, and that in order to survive, how theatre was presented would need to be comprehensively rethought.
Punchdrunk has certainly felt some of that pain. Barrett is no longer involved day-to-day in the productions of Sleep No More in New York and Shanghai, but he retains a financial stake and parental pride. “New York has probably about 350 people working under the building,” he says. “There’s people who’ve been working for that show for nine-plus years, so since it opened, and they’ve got together and had families. It’s literally their whole world. That rug is pulled and so the brutality of that is an emotional burden.”
Barrett also had plans in 2020 for a major new Punchdrunk show to celebrate 20 years, their first major production in London since 2013. But again, due to the pandemic, it has had to be shelved for now. “The costs just don’t stack up,” says Barrett. “For theatre, you need to be selling at 80 per cent [occupancy], or we do for us to be viable.” He smiles, “We were going to do so many wondrous things!” Punchdrunk, like everyone else in the theatre industry, had to come up with a survival strategy, and fast.
Theatre in Britain is stronger and more resilient than it might look. You might be surprised to learn that 34m of us go to the theatre every year. And it makes a lot of money, too: the cultural sector contributed £32.3bn to the UK economy in 2018; just the VAT on London theatre ticket sales added up to £133m. But theatre is also clearly vulnerable. As public subsidies have dwindled in recent years, all arts organisations have been under increased pressure to fill their spaces. A prolonged period of closure is effectively a death warrant.
Then there is the age problem. Few major venues are as progressive as the National Theatre in London: it has active programmes to increase BAME audiences and attract first-time bookers. Still, the average age of their audiences is 51, and in the West End, where ticket prices are higher, it is even older. Immersive theatre, which makes use of less traditional spaces, is often hailed as one way to bring in a new crowd. But, clearly, just because a play is staged in a laundromat doesn’t make it good. “Everybody calls himself immersive theatre now and it’s a problem,” Ivo van Hove, the controversial and hugely influential Belgian theatre director, told me in 2017. "In immersive theatre you also have a lot of shit these days. Like you drop a couple of balloons on the audience, you have immersive theatre."
Another great but at the moment nascent hope for snagging a younger, broader audience is technologically innovative staging. The RSC’s 2016 production of The Tempest, for example, featured a 20ft computer-generated projection of Ariel. The images were created by using motion capture to map the movements and expressions of actor Mark Quartley, and made possible by a collaboration with Intel and motion-capture experts The Imaginarium Studios. Virtual reality, for which you typically wear a headset, and augmented reality, which you access through a device, and holography are all expected to play more of a role in traditional theatre going forward. Most major theatres now have a digital team, such as the Immersive Storytelling Studio at the National Theatre, that is exploring how best to use technology to improve audience engagement.
If Barrett, who is 42 and married with two young children, is feeling the strain of theatre’s existential dread then he doesn’t show it. Today, he wears a pristine white T-shirt, wide black trousers and classic Reeboks; tattoos peek from his sleeves and his blond hair is scraped back into a careless bun. He has a bouncy, enthusiastic manner and he’s a peerless pitchman: he could suggest going for a BLT at Pret a Manger and make it sound like the most thrilling adventure of your life.
One of the main reasons for Barrett’s optimism is that Punchdrunk had started to diversify long before Covid-19 struck. In June, it announced a “multifaceted partnership” with Niantic Inc, the augmented reality company that created Pokémon Go. The plan, long in the pipeline, details for which Barrett has to constantly stop himself from spilling, is that Punchdrunk will provide “a theatrical reveal, or a flourish” to the experience of mobile gaming.
Barrett has never been much of a gamer himself, but Punchdrunk’s productions, with their invitation to explore large spaces and the audience’s freedom to make choices that impact the arc of the entertainment, are often compared to video games. “Players of puzzle-horror, first-person video games like will find the experience highly gratifying (and the notion of becoming a camera highly familiar),” wrote the theatre critic for New York magazine in 2011.
Certainly, Niantic saw a link. “Punchdrunk’s unique vision for real-world storytelling and a shared interest in pushing the bounds of world-building and immersion are what brought us together initially,” said John Hanke, Niantic’s founder and CEO at the launch in June. “Our teams have been collaborating for many months to create entirely new experiences that merge the physical and digital worlds in a way that hasn't before been attempted. We think the potential is global and massive.”
Punchdrunk has also moved into television drama for the first time. In September, the psychological thriller The Third Day, starring Jude Law and Naomie Harris, began airing on Sky Atlantic and HBO. Sam (played by Law) finds himself isolated on Osea Island off the British coast which can only be accessed by a long causeway covered most of the time by the tide. It quickly becomes clear that Osea has a deep connection to paganism and folklore, and Sam learns about an upcoming festival: usually it’s just for the 93 inhabitants of the island, but this year they are inviting outsiders. Enter at your peril.
The idea for The Third Day, which Barrett began developing almost a decade ago with the writer Dennis Kelly, draws in part on his recollections of going to Ottery St Mary. Other influences were the Palio di Siena horse race and Bonfire Night in the Sussex town of Lewes: “The whole town goes feral,” says Barrett, wide-eyed. “Again it feels like it shouldn’t be allowed, in the best possible way.” But the main Punchdrunk spin is the format. The Third Day is, Barrett thinks, “the world’s first immersive TV show”: there are six hour-long, pre-recorded episodes, but after three episodes the run is interrupted by a 12-hour live theatrical event shown on Sky Arts, directed by Barrett, which will be a real-life staging of Osea’s mysterious festival.
When we meet in Tottenham, Barrett is deep in preparation for the festival that will be screened on 3 October. He is back and forth to Osea, which is, incredibly, a real place in Essex’s Blackwater Estuary, once the site of a rehab facility by Amy Winehouse and now a luxury retreat often used for recording artists including, if the rumours are believed, Rihanna. The hope originally was that an audience of 10,000 people would attend the festival, but that ambition has had to be dramatically scaled back. Now there will just be one camera, following Law and the other actors (who include Paddy Considine and Emily Watson as the landlords of the local pub) over the course of half a day in one single take to be beamed, live, into living rooms.
As Barrett describes it, watching Osea’s festival will be something close to attending a performance by the artist Marina Abramović: “one of those live art experiments of the 1970s, feats of endurance that an audience would come to bear witness to.” But it will also tap into Slow Cinema, the still, reflective style used by Andrei Tarkovsky and more recently by Claire Denis, as well as single-take films such as the 2015 German crime thriller Victoria. Ultimately, though, Barrett hopes it will be like nothing else and a marked departure from the passive experience of watching television in the binge era.
“This is almost an ethnographic study of a fictional community,” he says. “You’re bearing witness to the rhythms of life and the meaning of their traditions and customs. So it’s a completely different pace to TV. We thought about having multiple cameras but there’s a danger that it becomes too close to TV. And we want you to slump in front of it and find it hypnotic. It’s less a documentary because it will be very dreamy, it’s all floating camera, swimming around…”
I can’t help interrupting: but what if the actors need to go to the toilet? “If they need to wee in a bush, that’s part of island life, particularly for the main characters who are really going to feel the exertion of the day,” Barrett replies. “That’s the immersion of it, suffering as they suffer, and experiencing with them the sheer duration of the filming.”
Shooting for 12 hours in one take wouldn’t be easy at the best of times, and this is very much not the best of times. Barrett, though, is out to prove a point. “People said, maybe we should pre-record it, in case things go wrong,” he says. “But we’ve all agreed that we have to, as a statement of intent as a sector, say, ‘Look, Covid has pushed us to the brink, but we can pull together, provide work and find a solution, even if it’s not what we set out to do.’ So we want this to almost be like a test case and a proof that we can fight back and still make it work even against the odds.”
Punchdrunk’s breakthrough show was a 2007 production called The Masque of the Red Death, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s 1842 short story of the same title. It is a tale of a mysterious plague that takes hold during a masquerade ball attended by aristocratic revellers. Poe himself was guided by a first-hand report of a society ball in Paris in 1832 attended by the German poet Heinrich Heine. “Suddenly the merriest of the harlequins felt a chill in his legs, took off his mask, and to the amazement of all revealed a violet-blue face,” Heine recorded in his diary. Initially the revellers thought this was all part of the show, but instead it was the early stages of a cholera outbreak that would kill many thousands. “Several wagonloads” left the party for the hospital, Heine wrote, “where they arrived in their gaudy fancy dress and promptly died.”
Revisiting this synopsis now, it suddenly feels very close to the knuckle. “Oh my gosh, yes,” Barrett nods. “A plague is encroaching and you either lie down and are swept up in it, or you batten down the hatches and chaos reigns inside. There’s a sense where maybe that’s what we’re seeing now with the second wave and the kids partying in the streets of Magaluf.”
Punchdrunk clearly didn’t imagine or predict the current crisis — Barrett certainly doesn’t claim any prescience whatsoever — but there are a few similar coincidences that suggest the company will be well placed to adapt to the new circumstances. Most conspicuously: masks. Masks have been a signature of Punchdrunk productions from the outset. They served a practical purpose — to distinguish performers from the audience, or vice-versa — but mainly Barrett liked the anonymity that masks provide, which in turn means the wearer is freer to shed their inhibitions.
“I’ve always seen a mask as the equivalent to a safety net,” says Barrett. “You can hide behind it. And for our audience, it was the replacement for a theatre chair in the auditorium. But also you can be whatever you want to be with a mask, so they’re quite empowering.”
Barrett, who personally favours a bandanna-style handkerchief as Covid-19 face protection, is wondering now whether masks will have a dual role in future Punchdrunk productions. “Our mask is decorative and now we’re thinking about reformatting so it can be protective as well,” he says. “So two birds with one stone.”
Still, if theatre is going to survive in the new abnormal, the main problem it needs to solve is proximity. Audiences and social distancing seem to be an unsolvable conundrum. But here again, Barrett has previous experience. For Kabeiroi, Punchdrunk’s 2017 production inspired by a partly lost tragedy by Aeschylus, the company worked with Google to track the audience (who were in pairs) by their smartphones as they moved around multiple sites on a six-hour route around central London. “Air-traffic controllers” operating from a central hub then made sure that they didn’t bump into other audience members and regulated their flow around the different spaces. It was — again, completely by happenstance — the ideal blueprint for a show in the coronavirus era.
“We were doing it for a sort of experiential good,” explains Barrett. “And to make sure that every group of audience were getting the same theatrical arc. But actually, as a by-product, we’ve got a device and a mechanism that can keep them separated. So it’s a more secure, more enclosed experience.
“It’s a weird thing where, ever since day one of Punchdrunk, I was always fascinated in the role of the individual and wanted it to be empowering the individuals within a group,” Barrett goes on. “So even though you might come with your loved ones and your mates, you’re immediately scattered. And because we don’t tell you what to do, you have to work your own way through it. So it’s almost impossible for two audiences to have the same experience. The communal sense of it comes after the event, when you meet back up together and you go, ‘You’ll never guess what I’ve seen!’”
The origins of Punchdrunk run very deep for Barrett. His father was a librarian and amateur magician and his mother taught at a pre-school, but both were obsessed with theatre. The family lived in Beckenham, south London, and travelled all around to new shows. Aged nine, Barrett found himself in the front row of The Rocky Horror Show at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley. “After 10 minutes with not only the crowd heckling but the performers heckling us, because we were clearly the wrong audience for that show, we escaped,” he remembers. “So that was probably a very formative theatrical experience: theatre can be a dangerous space — and that danger is exhilarating.”
Barrett never seriously acted himself — “I realised very early on I didn’t really enjoy it. It’s phenomenally hard and it’s much safer being behind the scenes” — but he enjoyed creating sets and orchestrating performers and audience. For his theatre studies A-level, he chose not to use the school auditorium, but instead, in what sounds like a Max Fischer fantasy sequence from Wes Anderson’s , took over an old gym. “I filled it full of sand, got a load of white goods like old washing machines from skips and built sort of an apocalyptic landscape,” he says.
Not much has changed then, only really the means and the experience of how best to manipulate the audience. When I ask Barrett for his favourite Punchdrunk production from the past two decades, he implies that he hates the question, but he has a ready answer. He chooses The Moon Slave, the show that was only ever seen by four people. It was made when Barrett was working as a waiter, having not long left Exeter University. Each audience member was driven alone by a masked chauffeur to an abandoned mansion house. Through an audio guide, they were sent along fire-lit paths and through a dense forest, while they were told a fairytale through their headphones. Barrett, never seen, orchestrated the action, powering the theatrical reveals using a car battery in a backpack, trying to ignore the fact that acid was leaking onto his trousers. The performance culminated with a marine flare exploding in the sky.
“We had to get Coastguard clearance, even though we were 15 miles inland,” says Barrett. “It turned the whole world red. And there was a huge soaring crescendo in the music, and it illuminated 200 scarecrows all staring at that one audience member.”
Barrett stops, with a storyteller’s flourish, so I can appreciate just how utterly terrifying this moment would be. “There was one point when the marine flare shot, one audience member’s knees gave way,” he says. “And it was as the soundtrack surged, and it was amazing just seeing a literal, physical effect.”
It takes Barrett fully 15 minutes to tell the story of The Moon Slave; he jokes that I am “the fifth audience member”. He has often thought about restaging it, but has never worked out a way to scale the production so that more people could see it, more efficiently. Still, it has been on his mind again recently, partly given that it’s “completely Covid-friendly because it’s an audience of one, for an hour”.
More than that, it is the perfect distillation of the Punchdrunk ethos, and perhaps a clear blueprint for the way that theatre directors will need to think in the future. “It has always been, ‘How do we try to empower an audience, put them at the heart of the story?’” says Barrett. “So they’re almost the lead character in their own show. We don’t want our theatre to be, ‘Last night I went to see a show...’ We want it to be, ‘Last night, you’ll never guess what happened to me!’”
After the protests, there was a bail-out for British theatres. A package of grants and loans from the government amounting to £1.57bn was promised to theatres, museums and concert halls in July. Even still, venues have already closed and many more are limping badly as they reopen. “It’s perilously precarious,” says Barrett. “It’s really dangerous. But on the flip side, hopefully this breeds creativity. And what theatre-makers are more than anything else is resourceful and agile and able to reimagine. I genuinely believe the future is just as exciting if not more so.”
We are seeing examples of this inventiveness already. Some of this looks much like the theatre we already know: Barrett studied how the National Theatre used multiple cameras for its NT Live shows — when a selection of plays was streamed on YouTube during lockdown, they received nearly 15m views — and he was particularly impressed by the Old Vic’s lockdown production of Lungs, starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith, which played without an audience but still managed to convey theatricality and “liveness”.
There have been other technological innovations that more immediately reflect our times, notably the Public Theater in New York’s streamed production of Richard Nelson’s What Do We Need to Talk About?. The latest in his ongoing series of plays about the Apple family, this time it consisted entirely of conversations on Zoom (discussing, among other things, the future of theatre). Also, from the Headlong theatre company, which created a series of short “digital plays” for the BBC called “Unprecedented: Real Time Theatre from a State of Isolation”, all conceived, written and filmed in lockdown, featuring actors such as Rory Kinnear and Gemma Arterton. But what especially interests Barrett is when mediums blur, such as the rapper Travis Scott playing a 10-minute set within the video game Fortnite in April, in which more than 12m players took part, plus at least an extra 3m viewers on streaming platforms such as YouTube.
When we meet, Shanghai’s Sleep No More has not long reopened, but at only 30 per cent capacity and with the audience in full PPE. Barrett seems to squirm a little as he talks of having to “de-immersify” the production to make it safe. His life work has been about removing the barriers between the performers and the audience, so reinstating the divide doesn’t sit well. “What’s brilliant is that it has sold out [in Shanghai] and it feels that the appetite and demand is growing,” he says. “There’s still a need for audiences to come, have a live experience, because that tactility — even if you’re not literally touching anyone — is something that is vital and feeds us to our core. And a necessary part of being human is to be with people.”
Punchdrunk is not abandoning the theatrical work it is known for; it just won’t be the only thing it does. “Our meat and two veg is taking over a big, semi-derelict building, turning it into a huge, vast, sprawling wonderland and letting an audience explore it,” says Barrett. “But it’s interesting, because it’s been harder and harder to get spaces. And more and more companies have sprung up since this time. So maybe that slightly encouraged us to dip our toes in other waters.”
Barrett takes a sip of his beer; he’s clearly used lockdown to think a lot about the past and the future of his company. Some of these questions are almost philosophical: if you are creating theatrical experiences within a video game, is it still theatre? But for Barrett it is a simple question of survival. “Punchdrunk was born in the year 2000, which is when the internet, certainly for me as a punter, that’s when I started using it,” he says. “And I really believe in the next decade, there’s a new entertainment coming and actually Covid has just sped up our pathway to that.”
In American football, they call it “broken field”: when a highly ordered game descends momentarily into chaos and the players who are most inventive and instinctual thrive. No one would have wished what has happened to theatre in 2020, but a landscape in which now suddenly everything is up for grabs plays to Barrett and Punchdrunk’s strengths. “My sweet spot is just setting us on a course, establishing that trajectory, keeping us, pushing, striving, striving, striving, never saying no… even if knowing that probably we won’t get all the way there,” he says. “And also, I just make work that I know that I would want to go see. So if there are bums on seats then yeah, it’ll keep us ticking along. And we’ll live to fight another day.”
The Third Day is current available on Sky Atlantic. The live episode will be broadcast on Saturday 3 October from 9:30am to 9:30pm on Sky Arts
Like this article? Sign up to our newsletter to get more articles like this delivered straight to your inbox
Need some positivity right now? Subscribe to Esquire now for a hit of style, fitness, culture and advice from the experts
You Might Also Like