This was without a doubt, the most incredible theater experience I’ve ever had. It was scary, interactive, exciting, clever, sexy, and even a little disturbing, but without a doubt it was incredible, original, and true Shakespearean theater.
Before you read the review though, a word of caution-
WARNING: this is a production where, the less you know about it, the better your experience will be. I will provide a basic outline of the production, and give you an insight into what I experienced, but I would urge you to see the show yourself without any preconceptions, so if you want to keep the mystery going that surrounds this production, I suggest you stop reading…
Alright, if you’ve chosen to keep reading, that means you want to know more, so more I shall give you. Going from the general to the specific, I’m going to talk a bit about what the show is, then describe the experience a bit, and then offer some tips for people who have never gone before.
Sleep No More is not the traditional kind of theater- there is no proscenium, no stage, no seats, and only one platform. It’s what theater teachers like my wife call “Experiential Theater.” The way she explains it, it’s theater that exists as an event. Rather than sitting and watching, you actively follow the action and you can get so close to the actors you can, (and sometimes will), touch them.
The play was conceived by an English company called Punchdrunk Theater Company, who took over an old 6 story warehouse on West 27th Street in New York City, and turned it into a fictional hotel/bar called the “McKittrick Hotel.” The play, (which is done entirely without dialogue), is a re-imagination of both Macbeth, and the novel Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, set in the 1930s. The audience is admitted on the ground floor and are permitted to go freely through the 6 floor set and watch the actors perform. Different actors perform on different floors and interact with other actors at different times, and the audience may watch any scene or actor they wish.
The title of the play comes from this passage from Macbeth:
As I said before, this a very freeing and very active kind of theater. The only division between you and the actors is that you will wear a face mask. Your role is basically to be an anonymous spectator at an event that unfolds before you, an event full of madness, sex, murder, and mayhem. I would describe it as sort of like living in the strange orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut, or that scene in The Shining where Shelly Duvall runs through rooms of the hotel and keeps seeing bizarre sights.
From the moment you enter the incredibly detailed hotel, you know you are in a place that was dangerous, dark, and chaotic. You wonder if the people are crazy, or if the building itself is crazy.
As an audience member, you set the pace of your experience as you wonder through the hotels’ infirmary, library, parlor, bath, ballroom, balcony, patio, and dark forest (masterfully designed by Alexandria Challer). Eventually the actors will find you and you choose whether to follow them or wait for something else to come along. When I first entered the hotel, I spent a few minutes looking at the set- reading a hotel guest list, or examining a jar in the pantry, or staring at animal carcasses in the trophy room. Eventually though, I found a story unfold before me, and I rushed to follow it.
Because none of the actors talk, this play is not Macbeth, unless you want it to be, it is not Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, unless you want it to be. YOU determine what your experience is. The great, (and famously crazy) theater theorist Antonin Artaud once said, “Text is a prison.” If that’s true, then Sleep No More has set its actors free: their movements convey the story through mime, ballet, gestures, and occasional words. This freedom from the restrictions of text means that it’s up to you to truly piece a story together, and you will find that story can alter, change, and sometimes disappear into mist.
How is This Story Macbeth? (Spoilers Ahead)
One of the most common complaints I read online from people who saw the show is that they didn’t understand the connection between Sleep No More and Macbeth. I don’t want to give too much away because I feel that part of the fun in this production is trying to figure out the connection yourself, but I will provide you with a few scenes to look for, to give you some clues on how to connect this physical theater piece with Shakespeare’s play:
Scenes to look for:
- In the bedchamber on the 3rd floor, there is a bathtub on a small platform. On the steps leading up to the tub I saw a letter that contains this text from Shakespeare:
They met me in the day of success: and I have
learned by the perfectest report, they have more in
them than mortal knowledge. When I burned in desire
to question them further, they made themselves air,
into which they vanished. Whiles I stood rapt in
the wonder of it, came missives from the king, who
all-hailed me ‘Thane of Cawdor;’ by which title,
before, these weird sisters saluted me, and referred
me to the coming on of time, with ‘Hail, king that
shalt be!’ This have I thought good to deliver
thee, my dearest partner of greatness, that thou
mightst not lose the dues of rejoicing, by being
ignorant of what greatness is promised thee. Lay it
to thy heart, and farewell.
This was the first definite evidence I had that the performance was inspired by Shakespeare besides the title of the play. A woman in a beautiful ball gown entered and read the note, pacing the whole time. Suddenly a handsome, red headed man came in. Like the Macbeths in Shakespeare, the body language between these two was hot and fierce; at times passionate and sexual, at times violent and animalistic. Lady Macbeth uses her body and her caresses to tempt her husband to murder, as the one in Shakespeare seduces him with her words. He trembles, turns away, brushes her off. Then, when she persists they struggle- clawing and slapping, even throwing each other across the bed, but in the end, exhausted, he slumps. She, victorious, leaves the room, looking like a queen already.
2. Alone in his room, Macbeth contemplates his dire murder. He leaves the warmth of the bedchamber and enters a dark, moon-lit forrest with a few gravestones. I followed him out into the forrest, knowing that what he does now will probably be an interpretation of Macbeth’s two most famous soliloquies: “If It Were Done When Tis Done” (Act I, Scene vii), and the famous Dagger Speech from Act II, Scene ii. Since the actor didn’t talk, he had to convey Macbeth’s inner torture with his body. I saw him going up to a statue of the Virgin Mary, beating his fists and chest against the hard stone. It was clear to me that this symbolized Macbeth’s struggle between morality and desire. He staggered away from the statue and stopped at a stone pathway that led back to the bedroom. Macbeth then put his hands on the stones, lifted his body up pull-up like, and kicked his legs in a futile attempt of motion. I immediately thought of Macbeth’s line:
I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other (Macbeth I,vii).
It was clear that the actor was showing how Macbeth cannot bring himself to kill, yet is too ambitious to let go of the desire to kill and this is what manifested in his tortured body. He then turned toward me and the other audience members and I saw his expression change. He looked around, worried, even frightened, as if he saw something he couldn’t believe. It wasn’t clear to me at first, but now I’m pretty sure that he was looking at the dagger from his famous soliloquy, and it was US. He ran from the forrest, and we charged after him like a swarm of angry bees! We found him in a corridor on the 2nd floor, where he again hoisted his body up against an old fireplace, inverting himself with his legs sticking up, and his head below, like an upside down cross. He then stretched his hands out and waved them frantically. Two frightened audience members took them and helped him hoist himself down. When Macbeth got to his feet, he proceeded to a darkly lit chamber where another man lay sleeping…
3. In a small bar on the 1st floor, I saw Macbeth with two women and one man. They all wore black lipstick and had crazed and hungry looks in their eyes. The music sped up to a crazed pace and the movements erupted into a terrifying orgy of sights and sounds. A strobe light pulsed showing me glimpses of the frightening spectacle, which included the two women stripping their clothes, the man putting on the head of a goat, and one of the women pulling out an infant covered with blood, and holding it in triumph over Macbeth’s head. At this moment I realized that these gruesome creatures must be the witches, and that they were foretelling Macbeth’s destiny as they do in Act IV. They also brought out a tree, which signified the prophesy that Macbeth will never be vanquished until Birnam Wood walks to Dunsinane Hill. To be honest, I don’t remember much after that, I was probably still in shock!
4. Back in the forrest, I encountered a small brick structure that looked like a tower, with a woman looking out of it expectantly. She beckoned me to come inside. When I did, I saw that she was dressed in a nurses’ uniform, and she was looking at a doctor with concern. Inside the tower was a small operating room with a circular table in the center, and two rows of seats above it. The doctor was injecting some kind of drug into his arm, which made it twitch in spasms. The two of them walked into the forrest and through a door into a room that looked like a small train station with platforms and travel posters on the walls. Lady Macbeth was there, wondering aimlessly. I instantly identified this moment as the famous sleepwalking scene, where Lady Macbeth contemplates the crimes to which she has become accessory. Usually the actress conveys her guilt by washing imaginary blood off her hands, but in this case she chose to interact with people, specifically, ME. She held out her hands to me, I took them. She looked into my eyes with a haunted look on her face. Then she whispered in my ear: “The thane of Fife had a wife, and she was beautiful.” I could see that this woman felt alone and afraid, with no one to talk to. She was no longer the powerful figure throwing her husband across the bed. This was what had driven her mad, and her madness allowed her to see me and the rest of us in the audience. She looked upon us with looks of disgust and terror, as if we were the ghosts of the people she killed, and ran away somewhere we couldn’t follow. We never saw her again (until the ghostly finale).
Those were just a few pieces that I witnessed. I won’t give away how it ended, but I will tell you that the show ended in a dining room on a tableau that reminded me of a cross between Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, and the banquet scene of Macbeth.
When I talked to my wife, (who also came to the show, but was in a different audience group from me), she told me that there were many other scenes that were clearly inspired by Rebecca; she encountered a woman that she figured out was the ghoulish housekeeper Ms Danvers. She also had an intense meeting with the long-suffering Mrs. DeWinter, who gave her a locket and told her to keep it always. Finally, my wife revealed to me the startling fact that (Spoiler Alert), the same woman who plays the infamous Rebecca, dressed in a red flowing gown, also becomes Hecate, the goddess of black magic in Macbeth!
These performances are athletic, well thought-out, and incredibly nuanced. If you take some time to familiarize yourself with the stories of Macbeth and Rebecca, you can understand how the actors are interpreting the stories through dance, mime, and interactions with the set, props, and occasionally, the audience themselves.
I’d now like to conclude this review with my own pieces of advice for those of you who choose to see the show:
- Yes, wear comfy shoes. Almost everyone will tell you to bring comfortable shoes and they’re right- if you don’t want to lose the thread of a story, you have to be quick. Macbeth in particular is fast and nimble as a tiger, and you have to run fast to keep up with him.
- Find a person that interests you. I think some people make the mistake of staying in one place too long and ignoring the actors. This is physical theater, so try to find an actor to follow.
- Pretend you are a ghost if it helps Remember, murder and insanity are here, and you have a chance to see what it looks like and how it moves. Look right into the actor’s eyes and embrace your power to haunt these lost souls. Don’t be afraid to get close to them, and stay there as long as possible.
- If you do read Macbeth or Rebecca beforehand, it can be useful to memorize a few lines or moments and look for them in the performance. I can tell you for a fact that these actors meticulously planned their performances to give physical life to these two great works of literature. Look for a gesture, a glance, or a prop that jogs your memory and puts you into this hybrid world of Shakespeare and Du Maurier.
- The actors can sense if you are interested in interacting with them. If you seem scared or apprehensive, they will respect your space and not get close to you, but if you show them you are brave enough, they will extend a hand, or come toward you and give you a theater experience you will never forget.
- Leave your loved ones behind. Nothing was more fun to me than talking about my experience with my wife after the show and piecing our nights together. Even though the same show was going on the whole time, we saw different people, to different rooms, and had very different reactions.
- If an actor disappears, don’t wait for them. Sometimes you’ll follow an actorrl and they’ll duck into a corridor, or go behind a locked door, or a sentinel in a black mask will block your path. Now the story is over, and you are alone. Now you must choose again where to go, and try and uncover the sense of this horror.
- If you get to go to the 6th floor, consider yourself very lucky. Only a few people get to see it. My wife said she saw one person go up there. He was on an elevator with a small group. As they reached the top floor, a hotel porter let him off, then extended an arm, to indicate no one else would be admitted. Even the man’s girlfriend was blocked by the porter, who then explained, “This experience is best undertaken, alone.”
Well, I hope this whetted your appetite somewhat. Like I said this show is incredible, and very different from the kind of theater we generally think of, and that’s what makes it engaging and exciting. However, there is violence, nudity, and gruesome imagery onstage so it is definitely not for children. If you are interested in learning more, you can visit the Sleep No More website: www.sleepnomore.com/
Until next time,