Last week, Martin and I went to see Sleep no more, an immersive theatrical production created by the British site-specific theater company Punchdrunk. The show has been playing for almost a year now in the McKittrick Hotel – a nod to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” –, a deserted luxury 1930’s hotel situated on West 27th Street, in Chelsea’s gallery district.
A complicated story; an even more complicated experience
Sleep No More tells the very dark and shocking story of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in a creative and unique way: welcomed in a beautifully decorated 1930’s bar, the masked audience – all “guests” are required to wear and keep on a Venetian carnival-style mask to stay anonymous – has for two hours an almost unlimited access to the amazing decor of the six stories pleasure palace, having the great freedom to explore any of the one hundred rooms and chase up the silent characters, choosing where to go and what to see.
Your options are quite simple but might be disconcerting: you can follow one character all evening as they run and dance around the different bedrooms, bathrooms and ballrooms – there is even a hospital room and an outdoor forest – or you can stay in one area, waiting for something meaningful to happen. You can read letters left on desks, take a look in bookcases and get as close as you want to Macbeth and his lady, Macduff and his wife, King Duncan and various witches and hotel employees - as long as you don’t touch them. Half actors half dancers, Sleep no more’s protagonists have certainly the power to make you feel sometimes in an intense and disturbing horror movie, sometimes in a wordless murder mystery evening.
The personal journey of subjectivity
What I found the most amazing in Sleep no more is the fact that even if thousands of people have seen the show, what I saw was unique. Punchdrunk encourages their audience to make a personal journey out of the play and I can understand why; you have only two hours to explore the story – and believe me it is not enough – and you have to take the most of it, following nothing but your gut and curiosity. My husband and I decided to split for the evening and we ended up with a completely different experience and perspective on the show; I know it can be difficult to understand.
When my inquisitiveness led me to follow a weird and disturbed taxidermist to a secret passage in the building, I ended up trapped alone with him, experiencing a very private scene as he was taking off my mask and speaking to me – which is uncommon in the play. My status temporarily changed from “guest” to character… I attended big crowded scenes as well as more quiet performances which I admittingly felt were more meaningful in my journey despite making it more difficult to put together the global story.
There is a frustrating and challenging part to this game...
The negative side of this great freedom and countless opportunities to roam and discover is that throughout the evening, I knew that I was missing something happening somewhere else. And when I left The McKittrick Hotel, I left knowing there were likely many rooms that I never had the chance to come across. Punchdrunk gives the audience a lot more responsibility than we are used to taking when attending plays and it makes the experience quite disturbing for a perfectionist like me. I wish I had the chance to contemplate every inch of the stunning and otherworldly decor of the hotel.
Why I want more
Critics’ response to Sleep no more has been overwhelmingly positive, with very interesting reviews in The New York Times, New York Magazine and the New York Post as well as a critical essay in The New Yorker, which I encourage you to read. Personally, I would have taken more of this remarkable and unforgettable voyeur’s delight; there is too much to see, there is too much to do. An entire evening in The McKittrick Hotel would have made me more satisfied.
At the beginning of the play, the elegant lady who let you in the hotel tells you that you can always come back to the bar if ever the experience is “too much” for you. I didn’t even come close.