It probably hasn’t been long enough for my poor addled brain to process seeing ‘The City They Burned‘ yet, but I’m going to have a crack at a response.
The website lists it as a retelling of the story of Lot and the fall of Sodom from Genesis 19 (in the Old Testament, I looked it up). It’s got everything you’d expect from the vengeful God era; death, genocide, angels of destruction, rape, sodomy (a word which originates from Sodom), incest – all the things!
Fleur Kilpatrick’s adaptation moves the morality of the original story from a parable of good and evil to a story about all the terrible decisions people make; her world of Sodom is all about grey morality, there is no black or white in this.
This production is showing as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival, and states it’s a fully immersive theatre experience, so I don’t know what I expected, but I thought it would be fun. I don’t want to give too much away in terms of the staging of this production, because I think not knowing what’s really going on is part of what makes it powerful. I will tell you this, the first half pushed the boundary of audience participation, and the second half, while not participatory, was not any safer.
So, what were my thoughts? Of the first half: it was intense, it was constant. The performers never once broke from their horrible, uncomfortable characterisation. In the first half, with the audience so close and visible, I think it would have been easy for the actors to feel as uncomfortable as we did. It would have been so easy for them to giggle awkwardly, look to the others for confirmation, shuffle, fidget, or generally crack. I would have struggled because knowing I was making people nervous would have made me want to stop, to break character. But they never did. The silence, the unspoken tension, the derisive laughter, the scorn, the violence, it was all supremely controlled. I watched as other members of the audience avoided eye contact and squirmed away from the actors.
And of the second half; it was intense, it was constant. While we had the cover of darkness and the anonymity of being unseen, the level of tension did not drop. I commented to a fellow next to me, ‘Do you think the second half was better? I mean we were safely in our seats, but it didn’t seem to help’, he laughed, but his eyes had a sort of traumatised glaze I’m sure was reflected in my own.
A quote that springs to mind is that art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed (I can’t find the original attribution online, but it might be Finley Dunne). This is an extremely disturbing experience, it is way, way outside my comfort zone, and yet I feel somehow accomplished for having done it. It’s good to push your own boundaries every once in a while. It felt like I was being a good student of the arts.
If you’re looking for a fringe show which is as dangerous and thrilling as it is well executed, look no further than ‘The City They Burned’. It’s less than $30 and you’ll never be the same again. I’m giving it 4.5 out of 5.