Posted by: strugglesome | December 1, 2011

What Dreams May Come: Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More

Nota Bene: The following rumination will concern a piece that takes place not in Philadelphia but in New York. Forwarned is forearmed.

Methought I heard a voice cry, sleep no more. Macbeth does murdered sleep. And so he does, in that so famous play, by everyone’s favorite English playwright of the late 16th to early 17th centuries (ha, take THAT, Ben Jonson). Because as soon as that fatal act that both fulfills and defies fate has been accomplished,  the world of Macbeth says goodbye to shut-eye. And given what we know about the human brain when deprived of its so precious REM cycles, is it really surprising that the guy ends up with his head on a stick? No one makes rational decisions when they are sleepy. Some of us indulge in internet shopping. Some of us comfort ourselves with food. And some of us destroy the stability of an entire country all for the sake of a heavy metal hat, and all it represents. To each their own.

As any high school English class will teach you, William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is an environmental play. This doesn’t, of course, mean that the secret message of the work is “don’t kill people to get ahead, do recycle”. It means that this play is as much about place as it is about people. It’s about what is natural and unnatural, it’s about the relationship between humans and the natural order of things, and the consequences of cutting the line, disturbing that balance. It’s also a story that creates an environment of its own, an atmosphere of terror and destruction. And it is in this respect that many productions of this so produced play fail.

Which is not to say that these productions are failures. It’s just that this is a rare and difficult challenge for any production.  Because how do we appropriately convey that the world around us is caving in to an audience that is sitting comfortably in their seats? Or even one that is standing, jeering and squirming, as most evidence suggests the majority of Shakespeare’s audiences were when this play was first produced? It’s difficult to make people paranoid when they feel like they are watching, and not witnessing. But it seems fairly clear that the Scotland Shakespeare depicts under the yoke of its Mad Monarch is a land revolting upon itself:

Alas, poor country! /Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot/Be call’d our mother, but our grave; where nothing, /But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile; /Where sighs and groans and shrieks that rend the air/ Are made, not mark’d; where violent sorrow seems/A modern ecstasy; the dead man’s knell/Is there scarce ask’d for who; and good men’s lives/Expire before the flowers in their caps,/Dying or ere they sicken. (Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 3)

So how do you do that? How do you activate this intention so clear in the text, this world made unnatural and wrong? Creepy set pieces? Cool lightning effects? The re-purposing of a multi-story hotel in downtown New York for a site-specific ambulatory choose-your-own-adventure movement piece? That is also a way to go. And that is, of course, exactly what the U.K. based company Punchdrunk has done.
If you wander down to 27th and 10th on the lower West side of Manhattan you might see a super sleek building with very little visible signage. Though this might be more subtle than most spaces in New York, you might think nothing of it, after all, what with the High Line and Chelsea Market, the Meat Packing district has gentrified to the point of respectability, and it’s probably just another boutique hotel with rooms that cost more than your South-Philly row home rent. But you would be wrong in that assumption, because in reality this is the McKittrick hotel, and to enter it is to go back in time and divorce yourself from reality. The entire building has been transformed into an installation/performance space, created just to house this rumination/disintegration/distillation of Macbeth (among other things), the magnificent Sleep No More.

Upon arrival, the hotel’s guests (that’s us) are greeted and, just like any good hotel, we give up our bags and coats and enjoy a nice refreshment while our rooms are being prepared. In the smoky sexy Manderlay (heh) bar, tinted in shades of jungle red, jazz singers croon, and a kind if creepy gentleman in a tux calls out to groups of people, delineated by playing cards, and herds them into the entrance in shifts. Once admitted into the curtained room, a ravishing creature named Faye and a kindly porter whose name I didn’t catch let us know the rules of this game. Number one, no talking. Number two, you get a mask. Wear it at all times. (They aren’t messing about with this one, I saw a woman be made to leave because the mask was just too much for her.) Number three, treat the performers like strippers, look but don’t touch. And don’t be surprised if they don’t follow the same rules as you do. And number four? Whatever you expect, this isn’t going to be that.

And then, like children in a playground, we are let loose to do what we will. Stumbling out of the elevator in phantom masks the audience quickly scatters in search of people to watch, and finds itself in a shadowed world of infinite possibilities. Rooms curl up into rooms, hallways lead in every direction, windows and mirrors magnify the space, and you feel like just maybe this hotel goes on forever. Taxidermied animals stare at you from glassy ghoulish eyes. Lamps sputter and flutter, doors open into labyrinths of spaces, filled with containers and hidden places. Letters and objects and curiosities are scattered over this terrarium of a world, each one of them rife with significance and careful detail, playthings for the mind. Designed by director Feliz Barrett along with Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns, this massively scaled set is most astonishing in its scale and depth, like a doll’s house for big kids, it envelopes its audience and it’s performers, submerging us so deep in this gorgeously planned environment that we feel a part of a noir-film mixed with a gothic drama mixed with the most elaborate junk-shop in the world. Plus there is a cemetery in there somewhere. And a forest. And a mental institution. And, of course, a hotel.

Given that this production has been running for over a year now there are a plethora of blogs, reviews and nosy friends and acquaintances (like…me) who will tell you what to do once you are released into the belly of the beast. I can only speak, of course, to my own experience, and let you know what it is I did when I arrived at the McKittrick Hotel. Just like the National Gallery in Punchdrunk’s hometown, London, there is too much there for any one person to see in three hours (I would have said the Lourve, but a compliment to the French is an insult to the English). So a big part of the experience becomes about the intersection of chance and choice. If you follow one of the lithe and mesmerizing movers who haunt the hallways and rooms you will be missing the others. You can’t do everything at once, and you aren’t going to catch every story out there. You will probably get extremely lucky at least once. You will definitely miss some unbearably amazing things. But your experience will be your own, and it will be mind blowingly well crafted by a group of insanely talented people, helmed by directors Barrett and Maxine Doyle. So I’m just going to tell you what I did when I got in there, and you can take it or leave it. But whatever you do, if you can, go see it. Because it is the essence of Macbeth, the root of this twisted tale, a heart-pounding journey through his reign of terror that reaches into this story and pulls out the heart and the guts. What it lacks in text, of which there is little, it makes up for in everything else.

I myself began my masked journey in a hallway filled with creaking floorboards and ghostly lamps (all lighting by Barrett and Euan Maybank). Alone, abandoned by my fellow audience members,  I passed through rooms of smiling dead animals and dusty mirrors, and into a back-alley bar whose walls were made of cardboard and whose floor was covered in woodchips. I watched the bartender perform a dance on the pool table, and followed a blonde woman as she encased a scrap of a book and some lavender in a locket. A spell? Was she a witch? As she strode out to followed her, and saw her scare a very pregnant Lady Macduff half to death. As I have always loved the women of Macbeth, I followed her surprisingly fast waddle up the stairs and into a hotel lobby, where she is met by a sassy bellhop and a stern-faced housekeeper, who simply must be a reference to the menacing housekeeper of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, one of the many other stories woven into this tale, and not the first Hitchcock reference you can find at the McKittrick.

The evening passes in a swirl of dark corners, swinging lights and unbearably gorgeous movement. I watch Lady Macduff, bewitched by a tonic and dancing up the cabinets (which is not recommended for a woman in her condition). I follow her and she takes delight in making me scream with surprise. She joins her husband demurely at a banquet, which, as it turns out, will re-occur three times over the course of the evening. Like a video game or a dvd, the story reaches a point and then re-sets, giving you three chances to try and witness as much as possible. It’s a source of delicious anxiety, blink and a performer will be gone, down the stairs or around the corner, and if you sprint you just might be able to stay with them, panting behind your mask. I see a sparkling party with guests decked out in 40’s style glamour (Costume design by David Israel Reynoso). I see Banquo’s ghost haunting Macbeth in slow motion. I see Lady Macbeth, bloody and destroyed, bathing naked in the mental institution and muttering about the Thane of Fife having a wife. I see the Macbeths in their bedroom, both opulent and stark, and their achingly sexy reunion in dance. I see Duncan’s death, timed immaculately to the tick of a metronome. I spend some time in the suite of the Macduffs, in a spectacular and intimate scene that gives this couple a rich and troubling backstory, all to the tune of A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square , (sound design by Stephen Dobbie) a song that haunts the show just like it haunts Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt. I almost pull something dashing after Malcom, who only gives his faithful followers a breather when he stops to observe the Latin inscribed on a vivid pane of stained glass, “Ulula cum lupis, cum quibus esse cupis” (He who keeps company with wolves will soon learn to howl). I elbow other people, I stand in front, I make it my business to see what I want to see and damn the rest (it’s honestly the most New York thing about this production, how dreadful you have to be to your fellow audience members).  I thank goodness for the mask covering my mouth, because I don’t want everyone to see that I spend three hours with it open, gasping and murmuring the occasional “oh hell yes”.  And when the piece comes down to its final, inevitable and yet still stunning conclusion, and we hear the familiar crooning ballad sweetly singing:

“The moon that lingered over Londontown
Poor puzzled moon, he wore a frown.
How could he know that we two were so in love?
The whole darn world seemed upside down.”

We are arrested by the sight of Macbeth’s body, swinging, limp and heavy in the harsh clean light.

Yeah. Try sleeping after that.

The beauty of the scale and ambition of this work lies in its completeness. Everything is open to us, everything is available to us, you can touch anything in any room, read any letter, peak directly into any well-crafted narrative and observe. This piece gives us infinite choices, but each one of those choices is determined. And that, in essence, is what truly great theater does, it presents the illusion of free will in a complete universe that is so well crafted we believe we are actually making decisions, instead of having all of them made for us. You can choose every aspect of your experience in Sleep No More, you can follow a character, stay in a room, explore the elevator system, read the letters scattered like leaves, open drawers, dance, stay still, you can do whatever you want. And, just like a good hotel,  all of your desires have been anticipated, and therefore, prepared for. The experience is so total, so complete, that you feel both completely in control and like everything is beyond you. It’s a magnificent, frustrating, fabulous feeling. It’s what performance should be doing for us all the time, not, perhaps, in the same way, or in the same format, but with the same spirit of detail, ambition, skill, and care. Because this event takes care of its audience. It scares us, it delights us, it perturbs and intimidates us, but we are its focus, we are incorporated into it,  and as a result we feel welcomed, amazed, grateful and special. Regardless of who we follow or what narrative we witness, they feel like ours. It is an inherently generous piece of theater, and as such, we cannot help but enjoy our stay.

Because there are no programs or curtain calls, I have no idea who was who, but given that these performers were all equally incredible, engaging and spellbinding, maybe it doesn’t matter. So I will simply list the tremendous cast here, because I have no other recourse. (Is this a British thing?) Sleep No More  is performed by Phil Atkins, Careena Melia, Jordan Morley, Gabriel Forestieri, Eric Bradley, Elizabeth Romanski, Nick Atkinson, Sophie Bortolussi, Stephanie Eaton, Jeffery Lyon, Maya Lubinsky, Luke Murphy, Lucy York, Nicholas Bruder, Marla Phelan, John Sorensen-Jolink, Ted Johnson, Danielle Grabianowski, Christopher Higgins, Conor Doyle, Tori Sparks, Kelly Bartnik, William Popp, Paul Singh, Adam Scher, Dave Bryant, Ching-I Chang, Annie Goodchild, Hope Davis, Django Carranza, Isadora Wolfe and Matthew Oaks.

Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More will be running until the end of January. Tickets are available here.


  1. […] flare of this skirt. I call it my Sleep No More Skirt (find out more about the show here and read my review here) because I was inspired by the event (on so many levels) and just adored the severe but elegant […]

  2. Nice write-up. Funny observation about the audience providing an authentic NYC experience. Seeing Lady MacDuff dancing and climbing all over, I had the same reaction: “You’re pregnant, lady! Take it easy.” My third visit was last Friday but it was the first time I noticed her and saw some of her scenes. I think her story is the saddest of the lot. I noticed her most acutely during the ballroom scene when she feinted backwards into my arms and put her full weight on me as I lowered her to the ground. I have felt most manly ever since.

    I recently posted my take on the music and sound, which may interest you:

    I’m not a theater person and would be interested if you agree on my take about the sound: that it’s more akin to a traditional theater production than most of the other elements of the experience.

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