I had an amazing holiday in New York last month, which was an intense week of cramming in as much culture and cuisine as possible. One of the highlights was going to see Sleep No More, which has been running in the Big Apple since March 2011. The award-winning and critical acclaimed reinterpretation of Macbeth by companies Punchdrunk & Emursive has had cross-over success with culture vultures and mainstream audiences alike, entering popular culture with front page coverage on Vanity Fair, appearances in major US TV shows, and a run that is continually extended due to demand.
For those of you unfamiliar with Punchdrunk, they create immersive theatrical experiences, where audiences are allowed to roam around freely, taking in the physical performances of the actors as they come across them. This takes place within an incredibly detailed large-scale set that spans multiple floors, with each room more akin to an art installation than a theatre set. Oh and audience members wear masks giving you the freeing feeling of anonymity for the three-hour event. Here’s me in me mask.
From booking your ticket to exiting the performance, the entire production is in character. The premise is that you are checking into The McKittrick Hotel – a decadent luxury hotel from 1939 that was sealed up at the outbreak of WW2 and is only now opening its doors for the first time. The fictitious McKittrick Hotel is in fact an abandoned warehouse which has been transformed into a performance space, restaurant and bar, defying belief in terms of vision, detail and cost. When we arrived, a couple behind us asked the doorman if the show was in the same location as the restaurant and they were bluntly told that there was no show, this is a hotel.
When you ‘check in’ you are handed a playing card and are led to a bar, where 1930’s styled sirens perform songs to a backdrop of red mood lighting and absinthe cocktails, gently immersing you in the atmosphere before your suit of card is called to enter – this works nicely as a way to break up couples and groups.
Upon entering, I straight away came across one of the major set pieces of the play, the witches summoning a series of apparitions, prophesying Macbeth’s future. It’s an intense scene to open with, and I did feel for anyone who may be there on a first date, as the strobe lit naked orgy rave, including animal heads, blood and babies, was quite the opener for those of us who came across it as their first room. Of course, many won’t see this scene until much later on in their journey, which is part of the fun of such expansive promenade performances.
Nowhere is the line ‘All the world’s a stage’ more apt than when you attend a Punchdrunk show. Firstly, you are on the set. There are large spaces, for example, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s chamber, an asylum, a ballroom and a maze like forest, as well as numerous smaller rooms, where less of the main sequences play out, but where much is revealed from looking though the intricately displayed props, from letters on desks to opened suitcases on beds. Here, the sets play the role of main character as much as Macbeth himself. Secondly, you discover the stories in a non-linear fashion, just like the stories we come across in life, dipping in and out, sometimes alone and sometimes with others. You won’t see everything but no-one else will have the exact same experience as you.
Macbeth is a great choice of source material for this type of production. The play’s themes of madness, murder, scheming and the supernatural lend themselves well to unusual stagings. The acclaimed National Theatre of Scotland’s Macbeth, where Alan Cumming played each of the characters in the one-man show, is also an example of a radical re-imagining of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Meanwhile, Punchdrunk’s decision to set the play within a 1930s film noir context worked perfectly, as many film noir tropes, for example, paranoid lead male, femme fatale and crimes of passion, are relevant to Macbeth.
Unlike when you go to a proscenium arch play where the audience plays a passive role and stories and motives become clear as the play progresses, in this type of immersive theatre you have to work hard to decipher the story and characters. I am sure many people thrive on solving such a puzzle, but for me personally, I found it extremely useful having prior knowledge of the play, as I could identify what scenes I was in (you are in the scenes) and which characters were whom.
I have previously seen Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man, which was based on a text of which I had no prior knowledge – check out my review here. I tried to follow what was happening but soon became overwhelmed and had to just give myself over to the sensory experience, with the hope that bits of the story would occasionally pierce through my bewildered wall of wonderment. I gained more enjoyment from Sleep No More as I knew the play well, but a sketchy outline of the story would have been more than suffice to help guide you through the journey, elevating the enjoyment factor in my opinion.
In fact, it was quite exhilarating at one point to realise that I knew exactly where to position myself to make sure I was able to follow Macbeth to his next scene to see him murder King Duncan, after interpreting a torrid dance sequence as Lady Macbeth convincing her husband that the deed must be done. Props to me!
If you’re planning a trip to New York, be sure to make a reservation at the McKittrick Hotel for a most memorable evening. You can check out the Sleep No More trailer here and for tips on attending a Punchdrunk show, scroll to the bottom of my previous blog on The Drowned Man.