Sleep No More, a dreamy Macbeth

A week later, somehow I still find the eeriness of A.R.T.’s presentation of Sleep No More, by British theater company Punchdrunk, to be palpably lingering in my mind. [My preview of the event is here.] I was and somewhat still am extremely skeptical of the premise, which combines the Bard’s immortal play with a haunted house atmosphere. On this blog I can feel somewhat freer to catalog my personal tastes, and the production inspires me to do so. For one I’m really not a fan of haunted houses, and high among my theater dislikes is anything even vaguely resembling performance art, which is almost always more useless masturbatory self-importance than illuminating experience. I also find nudity in theater to be unnecessary more often than not, too often used merely to shock and distract than add anything substantial. I also have a strong dislike for audience participation, but on that front I was reassured by my friend who had seen it once before and was going back for a second look (although she underplayed it a bit, as one of the first things that happened when I went was that an actress accosted me, which led to much internal grimacing on my part).

A quick browse of reviews will give you the basic information about the production and a sample of the high praise it has elicited. Time Out NY’s and The Boston Globe’s are worth reading, and The Globe also ran a preview of the show in October. You can also find audience comments on the production’s site, and there’s also an article on Wikipedia.

Free from the constraints of having to say something objective about it, I’ll just briefly go over my personal experience. It’s easy to see why each person’s experience will be different: 44 rooms on 4 floors of the abandoned school are used and with a cast of 18 you could spend a fair amount of time just wandering through empty rooms. But the sets of the rooms are so lavishly and oddly dressed that they encourage study as much as they inspire wonder at how much money, let alone time and effort, went into them.

After wandering through several such rooms near the beginning, when I came across a person I later realized was King Duncan getting shaved and dressed I followed him to a ballroom scene that I presume featured the entire cast. There were some baffling interactions, including a homosexual couple (one of whom I later learned was Banquo) that could be interpreted as either (or perhaps simultaneously) sensationalistic or contemporary, and an allusion involving a glass of milk that I later learned is from Rebecca, a Hitchcock film I and probably many of the audience hadn’t seen. After that scene I happened to follow Duncan back to his room where in a liberal dose of surreality (which I quickly found is the norm in this production) he went and gardened for a while. Somehow despite the odds the scene felt successfully bizarre and sinister though. I then followed some actors around and caught some of the central Macbeth scenes, including another obtuse scene in which a woman and naked man with an animal head (yawn) danced with our eponymous anti-hero and rubbed what looked like a bloody fetus that had been sitting in a birdbath over each other. Later I learned that the pair were supposed to be representing the three witches but that the third witch was out that particular night. Hmm. All in keeping with the dream-like, nothing-makes-too-much-sense-or-has-much-connection-to-Shakespeare atmosphere I suppose. A bit later I also caught a peculiar pseudo-dance scene involving a lamp dangling from the ceiling and two men playing an odd sort of tetherball with it.

It wasn’t too long later that I felt I had had enough and wandered my way towards the exit. Despite my criticisms, of which there are many, in the end I have to say I left more convinced than not. Any complaints, ranging from lack of cohesiveness in narrative, questionable use of the word “Hitchcockian” in its marketing, oftentimes extremely tenuous connections to its hallowed source with scenes appearing out of order, and overuse of fog machines (haha), are easily counterbalanced by the sheer abundance of atmosphere: everything seems calculated to leave you disoriented and the production perfectly succeeds in that regard. The wordless presentation and the masked audience’s silence and the constant feeling of stumbling through half-darkness adds to the eeriness. The huge scale and the ability to choose how you want to progress (by following the main actors around the whole time, for example, or just coming across characters and scenes as you find them) certainly inspires a second visit, and discussing the production afterwards with others and comparing notes on what you’ve seen and missed is almost more entertaining than your own experience.

Although the run has been extended, it’s sold out and closes February 7. Punchdrunk has done several other productions which I’m definitely interested in hearing more about, and I’m guessing they were similarly successful, but it would be a no-brainer to just buy the whole building and keep this production running permanently. The audience seemed to be a mix of RPG fans who probably have little interest in theater, theater fans, and people who had heard the hype, and adding tourists to the mix seems like it would enable a very long, very healthy run. Reading audience comments it seems like the production fosters conversation and speculation the same way shows like Lost do, and that at the very least people appreciate the evening as an “interesting” and memorable, if baffling, experience. A permanent production isn’t likely to happen, but if it somehow makes it back something tells me that I’ll be compelled to be back for more of this unique experience.

Incidentally, if you’re looking for a pre-dinner option my group happened to end up at Tashi Delek, a nearby Tibetan restaurant that offers 10% off with a Sleep No More ticket. Good food, and a good deal. Sweet.

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