Nightmares and Roller Coasters: Sleep No More

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How It’s New York:  Long lines, event of the season, the feeling of being in, for getting in.  So NYC.
How It’s Irish:  The Scottish play, on which this is loosely based, or rather maybe what inspired this installation-experience-theatrical-thing, is Shakespeare at his most Celtic (its spare, terrible-things-just -happen structure is just like a Scottish murder ballad.  Think about it.)

By now, you’d have to have no interest in New York theatre at all not to know that Sleep No More, from the UK’s Punchdrunk theatre, in a 100-room installation in Chelsea, is one of the hottest tickets going.  It’s theatre as happening as much as it is theatre as theatre.  To say it could give you nightmares only subverts the reality that the experience of this production is just like a nightmare; detailed, hard to convey in words, elusive, weirdly logical somehow.  Even when you don’t enjoy it, you

 Nicholas Bruder  and Sophie Bortolussi (Yaniv Schulman)

relish the experience.  UPDATE: THIS SHOW IS STILL RUNNING.

It’s directed by Felix Barrett (who also designs) and Maxine Doyle (who also choreographs), with addition design from Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns.

On line to get in to the venue on 27th and 10th (way, way West), I heard one girl reading the plot of Macbeth to another girl from her iphone.    But If you don’t know your Macduff from your Banquo, don’t worry about it.  You’ll get far enough just dimly remembering that Macbeth and his Lady killed the visiting king, so he could be the new Thane, and it all goes wrong in the end.  And there are witches.

It all reminded me of the Tower of Terror at Disneyworld.   I mean that as a compliment.  Nobody does detail like the Disney theme parks.  The Tower of Terror’s conceit is that you’re in an old hotel (1939, so same period too), and as you snake around in line to get on the roller coaster in the dark (to have the experience of getting on an elevator that breaks) you go through an old library, see a guestbook, and so on.  Sleep No More is a lot like that on steroids.  When it works, it’s exhilarating.  But like a roller coaster it has some duller patches, and it’s not for the physically weak.  You could get knocked down by other audience members rushing to follow a performer.  You could trip.  You could get museum (installation) fatigue.  I admired it very much but think I’d have liked it  more without the hordes of other audience members all around me (Theatre Etiquette:  courting couples may not hold hands and cuddle in lines and in narrow passageways).

You have your choice of wandering around on your own, or following a performer to get into the story.  Or doing some combination of both.  Like a really great museum exhibit, there’s too much to see in one viewing.  When I read other reviews I see things I missed (Lady Macbeth’s thank you note to the king, in a drawer!  A two-way mirror!).   It’s its own narrative.
Sleep No More is also set at an old hotel, the McKittrick.  It takes its name from Hitchcock’s  movie Vertigo  and there are film noir elements everywhere (including the ominous music by Sound Designer Stephen Dobbie, interspersed with period pop songs).  The roller coaster begins even in line.  You can arrive up to an hour before your performance time, and it’s not a bad idea, as there’s a lovely bar upstairs serving period (20s-30s) cocktails and a band.  Keep some money in your pockets, ladies, because you are asked to check your bags on entry.  For a critic, this already is disorienting.  I could not take notes!  It also was freeing.

Careena Melia, Ching-I Chang, audience members (Alick Crossley)

Your ticket is a playing card, the number of which determines when you get into the elevator that ushers you into the experience.  The elevator man lets only a few people out at a time, underscoring that you won’t really start at the beginning.  Before you enter the experience, you’re given a creepy white half mask to wear and warned strictly not to speak.

You wander around the dark, cool hallways into room after room laid out with convincing and amazing detail.  Here is a child’s bedroom (no doubt the Macduff murdered chicks), with dolls and nightclothes.  Here is Birnam Wood, a kind of maze.  In a large ballroom, witches dance around a pentagram.  There’s a hotel lobby, with keys, chairs, telephone booths– in which a thrilling, athletic dance duel took place (again, see the rule of dreams:  hard to describe).

Dialogue, even when the performers (you can tell they are performers because they don’t wear masks.  There are also some hotel guards in black half masks who occasionally steer you around, and I suppose could be called on if you faint) are right on top of you, is almost imperceptible.

Hovering close to a scene with Lady Macbeth (I think it was her, she was in an evening gown and  muttering and looked upset, if so it was Sophie Bortolussi), I thought, “This must be what it is like to be dead.  Or in someone’s dream.  I can see, but I am not sure if they see me.  I can’t interfere, even when I want to.  I feel disconnected from it all.”  That’s a cool experience to have.

Tori Sparks (center),  audience members (Alick Crossley)

As in a dream, I often found myself back again to a particular place:  in this case,  the room with the large bathtub.  I saw Lady Macbeth and hubby (two people credited, so could have been Erick Jackson Bradley or Nicholas Bruder) maul each other beautifully, poetically, gracefully.  The dance is highlighted more than the dialogue, and it’s all athletic, breathtaking (kudos to Maxine Doyle).

Unforgettable images included an office of desks, with hotel stationery, and a line from the play on it (I think this was it, but see above about not taking notes:  “A falcon, towering in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawk’d at and kill’d:  from II.iv).  Hotel guests playing backgammon in the lobby (actually I think they may have been volunteers wearing hotel guest masks, but it was an arresting image).  A truly terrifying witches’ sabbat under strobe lights where a man in a bull’s head seemed to come at me, and a baby is covered in blood (I think this might have been the vision sequence in IV.i).  So I could see, a black-masked guard pushed me in front.  Thank you, black masked guard.  An apothecary filled with jar after jar of weird herbal remedies.  A room with many books in which one line was cut out at odd angles, and pages put up on the wall.

Somehow everyone is ushered into the great ballroom at the end for the banquet scene.  I was right up close and couldn’t see all that well, but it was slow, starkly lit, and there’s a noose.  And right after it ends, you’re ushered back into the happy speakeasy bar, where a combo is doing period songs and you can order more drinks (if you took money in.  It’s key).  I sat for a long time waiting for the next group of people but finally gave up and left; you get to keep the mask.

I got a program on the way out and it shows that many of the performers are playing duel roles, suggesting there’s a secondary plot set in the 20s or 30s that I couldn’t access:  Ching-I Chang played “Sexy Witch/Nurse Shaw.”  Kelly Barnik played “Bald Witch/Catherine Campbell.”  But he inaccessibility isn’t a fault so much as a reassurance that there’s more going on than meets the eye (kind of like the private imagery some auteur filmmakers use again and again, like the Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky and his horses).

Yeah, I’d get on line for this ride again.  And there’s more to explore in this nightmare.

Punchdrunk, Presented by Emursive, in association with rebecca gold productions and Douglas G. Smith.  At The McKittrick Hotel, 530 W. 27th St., NYC, NY.  10001.  Tickets here.  There are five arrival times M-F, 7, 7:15, 7:30, 7:45 and 8; plus Fri and Sat at 11, 11:15, 11:130, 11:45 and 11:59.

 After admission, patrons embark upon an individual journey and may stay inside the performance for as long as they wish until it ends at 10:00PM (2:00 AM at Friday & Saturday late night performances) after which they are welcome to stay on at the bar.

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Comments

  1. I had an amazing time & am looking forward to going back. My review of Sleep No More:

    http://mordicai.livejournal.com/1922385.html

  2. Anonymous says:

    About the actors having two roles, they each cover at least two different roles, but only play one per show. One is usually a key character (MacBeth, Lady MacDuff, etc), one a more supporting character (the nurse, the porter, etc). It’s because most of the main roles are so physically tiring, it would be almost impossible to do it 8 times a week.

  3. certainly understand that, my point is that “Agnes Naismith” and “Matron” and “Speakeasy Barman” are not roles from Shakespeare. I don’t know what plot they are in, but not what I was privy tp! (I can guess that Speakeasy Barman is just what it sounds like, of course, but don’t know who/what Matron was! Agnes Naismith I googled, and found this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paisley_witches) But Thanks for reading! How did you find us?

  4. “Agnes Naismith” and “Catherine Campbell” as they’re listed in the program are Second Mrs. DeWinter and Mrs Danvers from “Rebecca” – I presume the official names are changed for copyright purposes. Dig around in the show to find out all the ways they’ve made Rebecca and Macbeth intersect with each other. Beyond that, there’s the psychiatric hospital level of the show, and then in the town, Gallow Green, there’s a lot of material adapted from figures in Scotland’s last witch trials. So while the Macbeth elements get top billing there’s a lot of other stories woven in.

  5. Fascinating thank you! I must check the program again. If yo follow the wiki link in m comment you’ll see Naismith and CamPbell were in a 17 th centur witch trial but I missed the Rebecca refs (& I love the film and the book!). Must see again!