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Hector Harkness - Viola’s Room Punchdrunk Interview

Punchdrunk, Felix Barrett’s award winning immersive theatre company are currently staging their latest play, Viola’s Room. 

This updated version of a beloved Victorian gothic mystery is a big departure from the company’s previous work. 
Viola’s Room is written by Daisy Johnson, and reimagines Barry Pain’s 1901 gothic short story, The Moon-Slave.

Photo by Julian Abrams.

In the experience at Punchdrunk’s new Woolwich home guests are told to expect a barefoot journey around a maze-like installation, guided by an unseen narrator – the voice of Bonham Carter – through headphones.

To learn more about the production we caught up with Hector Harkness, co-director of Viola’s Room.

Where did your arts career begin?
My parents had a puppet company, so I guess I was raised with a sense of the theatrical! But professionally speaking, I started out as a performer. Soon after university I got involved with Punchdrunk, just as we started making shows in London. So I learnt most of what I know about live theatrical experiences from devising shows, and making discoveries with the company as it developed over those first few years.

Were there any people or performances that had a big impact on your early years?
I grew up in Bristol, which felt like a hugely inspiring place to be when I was a teen, especially at the Bristol Old Vic, where I was part of a young theatre group. But in my twenties I really started to discover that theatre could be as much about visual, sensory experiences as it is about ideas and words. A couple of shows deeply lodged in my memory are Fidelio by Birmingham Opera Company, an insanely ambitious epic staged in a big top, and Complicite’s Mnemonic, which opened my eyes to a world of visual, poetic storytelling. 

What can you tell me about Viola’s Room and your role as co-director?
The show is an intimate adventure for small groups of audience. The only performer is Helena Bonham-Carter, who whispers a tale into your ears as you find your way through the maze-like world we’ve created. It’s based on a Victorian gothic horror called The Moonslave. It’s a brilliantly mysterious and enigmatic short story, and it was the inspiration for an intimate one-person show Punchdrunk created very early on in our existence. Now we’ve decided to revisit the story and reimagine it, working with the writer Daisy Johnson. Of course on this show the director’s role is unusual as there’s not much time working with performers, it’s all been about the collaboration with design, light and sound with the world of the story as the spine of the experience. 

Photo by Julian Abrams.

What attracted you to working on this piece?
It was the challenge of the unknown: how to take an audience on a linear journey with no guide apart from light and sound? That’s quite a departure for us as a company, as most of our shows have been for a free-roaming audience, choosing their own path. It’s taken all sorts of experimentation with new collaborators to make this new piece. 

How has the relationship alongside Felix Barrett been working?
We have a shared language and shorthand having worked together for many years, so it’s rare that we don’t see eye to eye about something in the creative process. Felix has an insane instinct for what makes audiences’ spines tingle, and it’s a pleasure to dream up ideas with him. 

How do you approach bringing Punchdrunk’s iconic work to life in this new production?
Viola’s Room feels in some ways like a distillation of what’s come before. It’s taking everything we’ve discovered about tactile design, filmic soundscapes and the mysterious power of lighting, and crafting them into something intimate and focused. 

What challenges does staging all the immersive elements bring?
The biggest challenge is probably the melding of all elements into a cohesive whole, and that’s needed time. In a rehearsal room with performers, you’d be able to try out an idea in the moment, to make instantaneous discoveries. But when you’re working with technical elements as the key to the experience it’s more of a leap into the unknown, and then a gradual process of finding out what works once you can step inside the world you’ve created. 

The audience are required to be barefoot for the experience, how do you think this changes the experience?
We’ve always known this show would be barefoot. There’s a vulnerability that comes from removing your shoes, a shifting of your everyday sensory life that hopefully will leave audiences feeling the experience more deeply. We also like the idea of a shared ritual: the removal of shoes together as a group binds you more closely together. And you’ll discover that shoes are an important part of the story we tell!

The company is settling into new surroundings in Woolwich, how does this aid the company for this production and going forwards?
It’s a real game changer for us to have a facility where we can keep experimenting and give proper resource to new ideas like Viola’s Room. It’s not easy for anyone creating artistic work at scale to find the places to do it in London, so we’re very lucky to have found these massive sheds in Woolwich that are a blank canvas for our ideas. Like most theatre companies we need to be in a space together, collaborating face to face, and it allows us to do that whether we’re trying a tiny moment or making an epic immersive world.

What keeps you inspired?
Devouring texts, films and images, and then imagining how they’d be translated into live experiences as I drift off to sleep. 

What do you hope an audience takes away from seeing the show?
I’d like it to take people into a different state to the one they entered in: hopefully it’ll have the magical thrill of being read a bedtime story and slipping off into dreamland. And if people emerge from that dream feeling like they’ve been on a mind-bending adventure, we’ve done our job!

Viola’s Room is booking until 18th August 2024. Tickets and more information can be found at

Photo by Julian Abrams.

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