Several weeks ago, my partner Jeff and I went to NYC to see the Punchdrunk Theater Company’s production of Sleep No More, a site-specific, immersive theatrical experience, housed in three abandoned warehouses on West 27th Street, based loosely on Macbeth and set in a creepy 1930s hotel. To say the least, it was an atypical night at the theater, more akin to wandering through a haunted house than watching a Broadway show—and it was absolutely riveting.
At the door, you are given a playing card and asked to wait in a speakeasy-inspired lounge. After a drink or two, your card is called. You are instructed to wear a Venetian-style carnival mask (à la Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut), to not touch the actors, and to remain silent for the duration of the experience. An elevator transports you to the floors of the McKittrick Hotel, and once you step out of it, what part of the show you experience is entirely up to you. You may wander from room to room, exploring the décor, searching for clues, and soaking in the brooding atmosphere. Eventually, you’ll stumble across a scene being silently (but muscularly) acted out, at times overtly erotic and violent, at times quiet and sad, always fascinating. When the scene ends, you may choose to follow one of the other characters to another narrative moment. Several times, the actors draw you into a group scene, and again offer you many choices to make and directions to go.
Eventually I stumbled on a scene that approximated Act II, scene ii of Macbeth and could easily identify Lady Macbeth as a character. Finding my footing in a narrative arch that I knew, I decided to follow her to see how Punchdrunk interpreted her story. Eventually, she began to repeat her actions—as if she were on a video loop. To see the scene reset was a singularly haunting experience; this repetition along with the silent actors, the deary nostalgia of the McKittrick hotel, and the swelling Bernard Herrmann score, all suggested to me that what we were seeing wasn’t something that was really happening before us, but a memory, a pantomime of the past, ghosts endlessly retracing their steps in limbo.
To further this effect, the fragmented experience of wandering in and out of scenes that you vaguely recognize but struggle to place is dreamlike. When I exited and removed my mask, the irony of the show’s title occurred me, because for the past two and a half hours, I felt as though I’d been sleeping, having a remarkably complex dream—the sort that teases you with signs and symbols but rarely yields an absolute truth. I also felt that I’d seen something completely fresh—and something that implicated the audience in a new way. But, as much skin and blood as you see in some of those scenes, the experience didn’t strike me as voyeuristic.
Voyeurism is about the viewer’s control over or objectification of the viewed (“the object of the gaze”). In this case, the audience is doing the looking safely behind our masks, but from what I could tell, it’s the creators of Sleep No More who are masterfully manipulating the viewers, not the other way around. Ultimately, it’s a sort of seduction—all good art is a seduction of some sort—not voyeurism. When you enter the McKittrick, you are on their terms, and you buy into it—or at least I did—and in return, they offer an experience that sparks the dark corners of your imagination. It produced a great sense of mystery in me, not the guilt of seeing something lurid and forbidden which I had anticipated. Of all the twists and turns I experienced that night, that was the most surprising.
If anyone reading this entry has seen the show, I’d love you to post your impressions as well. I intend on returning to the show if I get the chance.