Sleep No More
In front of the McKittrick Hotel, a line was already forming, buzzing, at the main entrance. If this were a Friday night, one might think that the crowd was waiting to enter any one of the posh, elusive, and hidden bars or clubs in Chelsea. Some people (two or three) even dressed the part, wearing shimmery cocktail dresses and what might have ended up being regrettably high-heels. Why regrettable? Because we were here for Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, an amalgamation of performance art, adventure, dance, presenting to its nightly wandering audience an individual participatory event that is a pinnacle presentation of dark magic that theater-craft is capable of delivering.
A fellow attendee in front of me was presumably attempting to allay the fears and anxieties of his companions. It’s “less scary and more macabre,” he says to them. He couldn’t have been more on the nose. The full term and definition, danse macabre is an aesthetic style from the medieval times that appears in a host of different mediums – painting, sculpture, literature, and of course, performance. This production puts heavy emphasis on the dance and performance aspect, yet the scope of the design is so vast and deep, that one is hard pressed to find one term or sentence or group of sentences that could get to the heart of what it is to truly experience Sleep No More.
Before my attendance and despite my efforts to remain as spoiler-free as possible, I’d heard plenty from friends, scant reviews, and impulsive internet scrounging. I heard theater-installation piece, a sort of haunted house set to Macbeth. For any ardent theater-goers, I heard that it was not to be missed. One hears participatory, another hears theater performance installation set to Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Macbeth. The plot follows, Macbeth, the newly declared Thane of Cawdor, as he is given a premonition that he will be king, and so murders the current one, Duncan, and frames the sons. Murder begets murder, blood begets blood.
Marjorie Garber, a Shakespeare scholar, calls Macbeth “the great Shakespearean play of stage superstition and uncanniness,” which Punchdrunk attempts to and succeeds at capturing from the get-go. Leaving the sidewalk and stepping through the main portal of the hotel, one is immediately plunged into darkness and uncanniness. The mysterious mood and frightening atmosphere are already being developed with music, lighting, and interior design (and this is only stepping in from the sidewalk). It’s infectious and enveloping. This fully-realized, prop infused house of horrors, uses theatrical devices and conventions to create all of this world. It is a prop-infused house of horrors with a fully realized vision that is so carefully constructed to the utmost detail that it convincingly transports one out of our contemporary times and into the decadence, darkness and decay of 1920s America a la Shakespeare’s uncanny and bloody play.
“Less scary,” the audience member said to his friends out front. I’m not so sure.
One important way this presentation of Macbeth differs from the original is that the actors and storytellers are stripped of their language. The performers utter and mutter a line here or there, alluding to some of the most famous and widely-known moments from the play. Beyond that though, the delivery of the familiar tragedy is told to us through a completely sensory experience. We are allowed to touch props. We can smell the actors. They writhe in sensual manners expressing their happiness or, more often, torture. Dancer-actors are pushed up against walls and often thrashed around. A melodramatic soundtrack accompanies them and us throughout the night. By not giving us words, the presentation of the story becomes much more visceral and sensual, defying the logic of rhetoric and interpretation. The only interpretations come from the individual audience member who is lucky to catch an interesting scene or event, or one who is vigilant enough to follow one actor through the hotel’s six floors and over one-hundred rooms to figure out how they fit into the puzzle. Whether one is well-versed in Macbeth or has never heard of it, there is a mystery to solve.
Now it’s easy to get tripped up and lost at times, confused and frustrated even. SNM can be a disorienting experience, which is partly the point. My girlfriend and I entered the hotel together, but once on the main floors, we were soon lost and drifting, only to run into each other by chance. One could try to resist it, but the creators have pulled every trick out of the book to highjack the audience. There were times when I lost track of the actors, or dancer-actors rather, finding myself alone or just with a random patch of audience-members. At those times, I frustratingly sought out the action, knowing that they were my anchor in this world. The only things we really had to guide us through this perverse world and haunting imagery were these perverse performers doing perverse things. It’s twisted and a hell of a lot of fun.
If I had to name only one hallmark achievement for this production, it would have to be the success of the individuated audience participation in this production. It was necessary for the creators to have absolute control of the space, both on a micro and macro level. Micro: these actors are volatile objects running and writhing throughout the space. Actors tap and push, not just each other, but us, too, giving gentle but clear directions in order to keep both themselves and the audience members safe in this world with no fourth walls. Are we invading their space or are they invading ours? The designers also had to make sure that there were ample and interesting vantage points within a room. All that and the amount of detail that goes into individual rooms are just a few qualities contributing to the living-breathing world. Macro: the larger scale concept of the near 100 rooms in the McKittrick Hotel, where each scene (one assumes) is happening simultaneously and cohesively over the course of two hours, is the most impressive thing of all. The fact that an individual audience member will never see the entirety of this production might be frustrating to anyone paying $75 a ticket. At the same time, the highly personal experience that one is getting in this dark world is more valuable than any program or souvenir one could buy at the kiosk in the lobby.
We, the audience, are given free will and agency in this world (though it is supervised for our’s and the actor’s protection – never know about weirdos), permission to touch props, and explore sets. At one point when I’d lost track of the action and in the midst of my seemingly aimless exploration, I stumbled on what I think was Duncan’s library. So I pulled a book off the shelf and sat down to read. Maybe two minutes later, Macbeth’s maid, who I’d seen earlier in a scene with Lady Macbeth, appeared with her eager entourage of audience members, and I was back in the action. This event is one part order in the production, and one part chaos in the audience member. The potency of this combination, arguably deliverable through these particular means exclusively, is damn near transformative. One hasn’t just seen this story. One has lived it. It’s a titillating theatrical experience (full frontal nudity, notwithstanding) where the production teases and tempts us past the point of voyeur and into that of participant.
With that said, there is a caveat. The old maxim about art requiring input from their audience in order to be fully appreciated has been taken to the extreme by Punchdrunk and multiplied ten-fold. In fact, Punchdrunk is out for blood. And they give as much as they get, I’m sure. This production is full of frightening images and mature themes on the one hand; on the other hand, in order to see that blood and to get to the depth of the show, one must willingly submit and bravely hunt down. The story doesn’t appear in front of you. In fact, a friend of mine posited a theory that the actors are feeding off of the audience. Because I was attentive and vigilant in chasing down certain story-lines, I was ‘rewarded by two private sessions where I became the acting partner behind locked doors. Just me and the actor. While there’s no right way to approach this heavily segmented and individualized performance, I did take heed of one piece of advice given to me by one of the night’s hosts, which I am now passing on to you: “the bold will be rewarded.”
Tips for Enjoying the Show
- Read up on your Macbeth. It can’t hurt.
- Wear comfortable shoes and get a good night’s rest; you’re going to be running around a lot
- Feel free to explore, but if you want to ‘understand the story’, follow the actors. Let your curiosity, along with their actions and movements throughout the house, guide you.
- Have a drink or two at the (pricey but awesome) bar. Loosen up. You’re essentially an actor in this space, and the fewer inhibitions you have (within reason), the more enjoyable it will be for you…and presumably the actors, too.
http://sleepnomorenyc.com/ – for tickets and information
- The phrase “Sleep no more” is uttered by a supernatural voice that Macbeth claims to have heard after the King’s murder, his first in cold blood. It is the beginning of his madness. Apt, considering the nature of the show. It works on so many levels.
- For those interested in Marjorie Garber and her essays on the plays, check out the book Shakespeare After All. I read the whole essay on Macbeth, though only used the very beginning. Here is one interesting tidbit, though, relating to SNM: “[Macbeth] is about transgression…unleashed powers that have, as theatrical events unfold, already crossed the threshold into the supposedly safe space of the stage. Any idea the audience may have had that events onstage would act as a safety valve, a buffer, or a social astringent, drawing out the poison, making things happen onstage so that they do not have to happen offstage, in our ‘real’ world and lives, has already been challenged…by the unintended murder of Polonious in Hamlet. Safely stowed, as he thought, on the other side of the arras, or curtain, and thus situated as ‘spectator’ rather than participant or combatant, Polonious is stabbed by a nervous Hamlet when he breaks the code of silence that is enjoined on audience members. He cries out, Hamlet thinks he may be ‘the King’, and the watcher and auditor becomes actor and victim.” SNM raises interesting questions that perhaps arise subliminally in the audience who is induced to become a player in the action, to be a participant. But not always. When is it appropriate to not act, to just watch? When should I pick up that ringing phone or read that note? When I am running after Macbeth to watch a scene, am I complicit in it happening? Am I living out Macbeth or just watching it? Again, am I invading the actor’s space or are they invading mine?
- Finally, I did have the pleasure of talking to one of the actors in the lounge/bar area while sipping on absinthe. I asked him about rehearsing the play, which was interesting but not as interesting as what I overheard. He said that he often wondered what might happen if he was performing to an empty room? Would his performance matter? How would he change it without anyone to witness the act and movement?