Punchdrunk’s Viola’s Room review – Helena Bonham Carter narrates a dark, dreamy and performerless odyssey

The new immersive production runs at Woolwich Works until 18 August

Audience member at Viola's Room
Audience member at Viola’s Room, © Julian Abrams

Punchdrunk loves to play with the boundaries between dreams and reality and Viola’s Room is no different, even starting at a sleepover. And while, as a 45-minute linear experience with no live performers, it is a departure in form from the company’s famous large-scale masked shows, familiarity remains. Impeccable design, labyrinths both literal and figurative, and a deep fascination with storytelling, intimacy and ritual maintain that ineffable Punchdrunk feel.

One of founder Felix Barrett’s first-ever shows was The Moon Slave, inspired by the 1901 gothic short story of the same name by Barry Pain. Barrett has returned to it over 20 years later, reimagined by Booker Prize-shortlisted Daisy Johnson into a dark and dreamy fairy tale of girlhood and lost innocence. It’s whispered into your ear by Helena Bonham Carter with Gareth Fry’s rich sound design evocatively synced with the physical space as barefoot audiences follow Simon Wilkinson’s ethereal and haunting lights.

There are moments of absolute darkness too, although these perhaps take up slightly too much of the run time of a short show that could do with even an extra ten minutes. Especially given the moments of absolute wonder in Barrett and Casey Jay Andrew’s set, utilising intricate miniatures through to spectacular set pieces. You will want to stop and examine them but, as in a dream, you are inexorably pulled on.

The first set, Viola’s 90s-set bedroom, is gorgeous and littered with clues that speak to beautiful and terrifying rites of ending girlhood – think the Lisbon sisters in Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. Innocence, but sharpened. Girls telling each other tales of witches and bloody shoes. As the audience lie down on the mismatched beds of teenage slumber parties, Bonham Carter asks us if we would like to be told a story. From there we follow Viola into a heady, moonlit maze and a terrible bargain with a soundtrack of 90s classics full of lyrics about blurred reality, girls, gods and devils.

Audience member at Punchdrunk's Viola's Room
Audience member at Punchdrunk’s Viola’s Room, © Julian Abrams

The show loops through Viola’s changing bedroom three times, the maze leading from it evolving from the soft white sheets and shadow puppets of bedtime to decayed and ripped hangings into heavy velvet curtains with grass underfoot as Viola continues to stray further from domesticity. Pain’s original story is more judgmental than this version – there are whispers of wild freedom here, what one gains and sacrifices to shrug off authority, and the deliciousness of ripping a dress shorter.

Pagan and Christian symbology rub along together and then start to chafe; we see white dresses in confessional booths, hawthorn trees scrawled on pages from the Bible, and a figure in a chapel that does not have the face of Christ. Arthur Machen’s 1890 novella The Great God Pan features at least twice and there are haunting, powerful moments hinting that Viola is not the first to tread this path. To the inevitable frustration of some and delight of others, this isn’t a show to be solved with one correct solution, despite its linear structure. Viola’s Room doesn’t promise answers, but settle down and let Punchdrunk tell you a story and you might find one anyway.