Sleep No More: A Review

by by Meara Sharma

illustration by by Robert Sandler

Late last Saturday night, I was in New York City searching frantically for 530 West 27th Street, the site of Sleep No More—a Macbeth-inspired, Hitchcock-infused performance piece. Sleep No More is a large-scale, exploratory performance installation set inside an old hotel; audiences absorb the piece by wandering through the elaborately designed space at will, nonlinearly. I was anticipating an ornate, crumbling structure, but instead I found a nondescript brick façade and heavy black door staffed by a bouncer, who simply checked my I.D. and sent me inside.

Sleep No More arrives in New York City after a run in a vacant schoolhouse near Boston, where London-based performance group Punchdrunk collaborated with Cambridge’s American Repertory Theatre (ART). Sleep No More emerges out of Punchdrunk’s penchant for concocting unconventional, immersive theatre experiences “in which roaming audiences experience epic storytelling inside sensory theatrical worlds.” Punchdrunk has developed groundbreaking “immersive theatre” in England, creating works in tunnels, warehouses, and factories, and other abandoned spaces—but Sleep No More is the company’s first US foray. Though ART was initially skeptical about how orthodox theater-going Bostonians accustomed to watching performances from comfortable seats would respond to a piece that involved exploring and decision-making, the performance was met with enormous success. Now, Sleep No More seduces audiences in the McKittrick Hotel in West Chelsea, which has been revived and transformed into a conceptual dreamspace that melds the world of Shakespeare’s Scottish play with the decadence of 1930s film noir.

The McKittrick hotel’s story makes it a rich site for staging a ghostly piece. Constructed in 1939, it was designed to be the most opulent, luxurious hotel in New York City. But its long-awaited opening coincided disastrously with World War II. The hotel was mysteriously condemned just days before the outbreak of the war and was never opened to the public. Its countless rooms, empty for decades, fit Sleep No More artistic director Felix Barrett’s vision perfectly: “Once it’s been empty for a while, ghosts and echoes start to infect it. You almost feel the rot starting to set in, and that’s a much more creative starting point.”

Upon entering, the concierge handed me the king of spades (my ticket), and directed me down a staircase that fed into a series of mazelike passageways, barely lit with plenty of shadows hiding imagined lurkers. The maze spit me out into a lively bar, richly decorated with reds and blacks and washed with red light. Women in gowns swayed to swingy jazz and tuxedoed men huddled together, sipping manhattans. Tucked clandestinely into the bowels of the hotel, the bar felt illusory, an unfolding cinematic scene. The newly arrived audience members were glaringly out of place, thrown unexpectedly into another era.

Just as I felt myself sinking into the noir-ish world of the bar, a mustached British man swept about twenty audience members with king or queen playing card tickets into a darkened hallway. There, a lady in a sequined ball gown gave us white Venetian masks to wear for the duration of the show. Our hostess seductively explained that the piece was best experienced alone, and that we should explore, follow our instincts, and be bold. With that, we were whisked up an elevator and sent into the world of Sleep No More.
Almost instantly, the disconnect between contemporary audience member and period scene melted away: as we dispersed among the various sensorially-rich rooms we became masked wanderers, populating and melting into the landscape of the performance. In many ways we were like ghosts, barely discernable to the actors and free to walk through walls and enter and exit unfolding scenes as we pleased.

The hotel is vast (100,000 sq. feet), and the piece is as much about exploring intricately crafted physical spaces as it is about watching live performers. Many rooms were free of actors but replete with fascinating objects and set pieces to explore. I took as much pleasure in nearly falling asleep in a blue-lit maze of trees as I did in chasing around the very pregnant Lady Macduff. The twenty actors in the piece did not speak, but rather communicated entirely through movement and facial expression. Though the actors would push through the masked audience members, they appeared to be in a trance, and unable to see us—it was as if we had fallen into their dream. The actors moved through the space with ostensible freedom, though at times they would miraculously converge, enact a wordless scene, and then disappear down a hallway, or behind a curtain.

Sleep No More was spread across five floors, each configured differently: long corridors flanked by small former hotel rooms, vast lobbies, landings, low-ceilinged spaces, mezzanines, and large halls. But the world of the piece was so overwhelming and immersive that I lost my sense of spatial memory (and forgot I was even in a hotel in New York City), finding it impossible to remember what floor I was on and which rooms I had already visited. At one point I wanted to return to a bedroom I had visited earlier in the night, and though I tried to retrace my steps and search each floor, I couldn’t find it. It was as if the rooms were as fleeting as the characters that moved through them.

The story of Macbeth provides raw material for the piece: a forest of dead trees, sinister music, blood-covered bedsheets, rotting food, stumbling bodies. But rather than dictating a plot, Macbeth—as well as Hitchcock horror films—provided inspiration for the physical and psychological world of Sleep No More. Crafted with painstaking detail, each space in the hotel conjures up moments from the play as well as atmospheric emotion that brews an overarching sense of eeriness and unease.

One large room was transformed into a hospital wing; dimly lit and dotted with crucifixes, its rows of empty beds and scattered hospital records evoked a ghostly, palpable absence of life. The hospital bled into an office filled with hundreds of hair samples sealed in vials. A bloody tub was raised upon a pedestal in the center of Macbeth’s bedroom. A child’s nursery was grotesquely distorted by an enormous hanging mobile of decapitated stuffed bears.

As the characters in the piece moved swiftly through the maze of the hotel, swarms of masked audience members would gather around an unfurling scene and then run after an actor as he exited the room, eager to consume another piece of the story. The faceless flock allowed for moments of collective experience within a highly individual journey. As Lady Macbeth stripped off her clothes, threw herself against the walls of her bedroom, and dipped into a bloody tub, we could indulge our impulse towards voyeurism together. Our collective gaze made us complicit in the scene, and the shape-shifting group of white masks became an equally interesting spectacle.
That being said, Sleep No More¬ís chilling impact arises from the intensely individual way in which the piece is intended to be experienced. Wandering around alone, my experience was not mediated or interrupted through conversation, and I could truly follow my instincts and intuitions about what to explore next without having to consult with the friends with whom I was traveling. For three hours I could fall deeply into the choose-your-own-adventure world of the piece and allow it to cast a spell over me, a spell that continues to linger days later.

Because Sleep No More breaks from ordered, linear logic, there is no correct way of taking in the piece, and each audience member comes away with a different experience. After leaving the hotel, my friends and I compared experiences and realized we had each “missed” a lot (I missed a candy shop, and a pagan-esque ritual involving techno music and a bloody goat). But the idea that the piece looks different to each viewer contributes to its magic—it is a multilayered, everchanging dream, and what you see and experience is a reflection of the self you brought to the space, on that particular evening (it also brings people back for more).

So much of Sleep No More is about atmosphere—the audience’s visceral, emotional reaction to what we are exploring and witnessing. The scenes from Macbeth are pulled from the text of the play, yet abstracted. The actors choose movement over words and perform highly athletic, dancelike interpretations of dinner parties, fights, and conversations. Narrative is intentionally deconstructed, and a sense of cohesion is almost impossible to assemble, even if one moves methodically through each room. Narrative comes not from the way the rooms interlock, but from the leaps of one’s own mind. I found immense pleasure in this—allowing my mind to freely associate and concoct constantly changing stories as I wandered through the piece. I was left with a slew of spiraling thoughts, pulsing in all directions. The effect is acutely different from the experience of watching a play that seeks to bestow upon the audience a particular narrative. In Sleep No More, a story does not pull the audience along; rather, the audience has to maintain a sense of curiosity and a desire to make something interesting out of the sensory barrage.

I did wonder, though, about how these individually constructed narratives could be better facilitated—for example, if the audience had been more actively involved in the world of the piece. Our ghostly presence was useful—we could wander through the space without disrupting it—but that might be exactly the problem. The audience didn’t radically affect the outcome of the piece. What would have happened if an audience member jumped into the bloody tub with Macbeth, or stopped Lady Macduff from being poisoned? What if the audience wreaked havoc during the banquet scene? Of course, no one told us we couldn’t get more involved, but I couldn’t shake the sense that I had fallen into someone else’s dream, and I wasn’t truly an architect of it.
At the same time, too much audience involvement would have disrupted the effortless physicality of the actors’ movements, and the eerie stillness of their tableaus. And though Sleep No More does demand more of its audience than a conventional piece of theatre, it is still incredibly satisfying to step back and watch beautiful and moving things unfold. Audiences don’t want to let go of that completely. I wonder, also, about the longevity of “immersive theatre”—whether Sleep No More is drawing huge audiences because the show is an exception to the norm, or whether theatre-goers are truly craving more opportunities to break out of the traditionally passive audience role.
Towards the end of our time with the piece, the characters sychronistically united in a cavernous hall filled with Christmas trees that would periodically spin and illuminate. The various faceless flocks following the characters converged as well, and for the first time the whole audience seemed to be together, looking up at the actors seated at a grand banquet table, frozen yet surging with expression. They moved through a dramatic slow-motion sequence, their restrained yet precise actions building vast amounts of tension as a blood-covered figure was hoisted into the air, about to be hanged. In this final moment we became like any other audience: the play had strung us along, and we awaited catharsis. Sleep No More gave it to us: the body dropped, the lights went out, and we were left with the sound of a creaky rope swinging back and forth and the shadow of a limp body. Before we slipped back into ourselves, guards, also masked, emerged from the corners of the room and ushered us out, back into the red-lit bar where we began.

MEARA SHARMA B’11 is a queen of spades.

Sleep No More will be running until April 16 at the McKittrick Hotel, 530 W 27th Street, New York City.