Sleep No More (live theatrical experience)

Last week I dreamt I went to Manderley again. Okay, well, it wasn’t again. It was my first time. And it wasn’t a dream, although it sure felt like one, like a weird meandering dream filled with meaningful images that only make sense symbolically. But it was Manderley. I sat at a desk and rifled through the mail addressed to the De Winters. I inspected their datebook and even thought for a while that I was chasing Mrs. Danvers around. I was actually at a production of Sleep No More, a Punchdrunk Theatre production currently running in a warehouse in Chelsea.

When I was considering what play I’d like to see when I was in New York for BEA, Jenny of Jenny’s Books mentioned Sleep No More, and once I looked into it, I knew I had to go. An experimental and immersive production of Macbeth filled with nods to Rebecca and Alfred Hitchcock? Yes, please. So on my last night in New York, Jenny and I turned up at “The McKittrick Hotel” to experience the play. After checking in, we were sent up a pitch-black hallway that led to a crowded lounge where we waited for our group numbers to be called. (The managers give people who check in together different numbers to encourage them to experience the play separately.)

When my turn came, I and the other members of my group were given white masks that we had to wear the whole time we were in the “hotel.” We were then taken up in an elevator that stopped on each floor and let a few people out. I ended up on what I came to call “the dead baby floor” because one of the first things I saw was a room with an empty crib and lots of headless dolls hanging over it. There was also a graveyard with a baby carriage and an abandoned child’s bedroom. Creepy! Eventually an actress showed up, and following advice Jenny had gathered ahead of time, I started following her around. She ran up and down the stairs and had silent exchanges with a man in his bedroom and a cool redhead. (Almost all of the play is silent.) She poured liquid from a vial into drinks, watched a man lip-synching to “Is That All There Is?” in a nightclub, and offered a glass of milk to a pregnant woman who promptly fainted. What the heck is she up too? I never figured it out—is she Mrs Danvers? A witch? Hecate herself?

She was definitely not Lady Macbeth. I know this because I ended up following Lady Macbeth after she ran past me to leave a big ballroom scene. She and Macbeth had a tussle in the bedroom, then he left only to return with blood all over his clothes and hands. He stripped down to nothing, and she bathed him. After he left, she danced in a frenzy around the room. She was already starting to crack.

After following the actors for a little over an hour, I decided to start poking around the set. This is strongly encouraged, by the way! You’re supposed to snoop. The set has a 1930s noir feel to it, and many of the rooms are filled with strange objects, many of which I think are meant to hark back to Macbeth itself. For example, one room had paintings of the line of Scottish kings and queens. As I looked through the desk in a detective’s office, I saw notes about unnatural weather and bizarre animal behavior. The office was also full of birds—there was even an ostrich egg in a file cabinet! Is the detective a bird watcher? Is he investigating crimes involving birds?

One whole floor was set up like a hospital. There were rows of beds in one room, and one of these beds was filled with potatoes. The beds look child-sized. Is this a reference to Duncan’s son Donalbain’s escape to Ireland? Another floor featured a street scene with a tailor, a funeral parlor, and the Manderley room. There was also a witch’s lair that smelled beautiful, what with all the herbs, but felt creepy, what with the occultic symbols everywhere. And Dr. Who fans—there were Weeping Angels! Well, they weren’t angels because they had no wings, but still… I was thoroughly unsettled. And I saw Banquo’s ghost! And Duncan’s (or Banquo’s?) deathbed—full of feathers! Why?

As I was wandering, other actors turned up, and I followed them—or not, depending on where I was and what I was doing and how hot the room was. It got hot in there, especially with that mask! At the end of the evening, I met up with Jenny in the lounge, and we went out to a diner and compared notes on the evening. We did indeed have very different experiences. We saw most of the same rooms, but few of the same scenes. But you’ll have to read her post to get her version of the story!

I’ve read up on the play since the weekend, and I realize that there were huge things both Jenny and I missed. There was a candy store! And people could eat the candy! (Did y’all know I have a sweet tooth?) Malcolm cracks an egg in an audience member’s hand! One person during each show gets pulled into a room for a one-on-one with a nurse! Some people have been left off the elevator alone on a floor. I would totally go again just to find out what play I end up seeing on a second visit.

The video below is for an earlier production in Boston, but it will give you a sense of the visuals. See also this video about the New York production from the BBC and this interactive look at some of the rooms from the New York Times.

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28 Responses to Sleep No More (live theatrical experience)

  1. Kathy says:

    That sounds TOTALLY surreal.

  2. This is so so cool. As soon as you told me about it, I knew it was something I would love – though if they left me by myself, I would scream my head off.

    • Teresa says:

      I would have been terrified to be left alone on my first trip. It was bad enough to be with a smallish group on what was probably the creepiest floor. But if I see it again, I think I’d relish being on my own.

  3. softdrink says:

    I went and watched the other video…and the critic from the Times said he got lost! That would be scary. But it still sounds totally amazing.

  4. Lisa says:

    I just read about this in the New Yorker & thought it would be an amazing experience, but like jenna I wouldn’t want to be there by myself.

    • Teresa says:

      If you’re left alone on a floor right at the start, I doubt you’d be alone for very long. They’ll let you go into the elevator with a friend (whoever has the highest number), but it’s much better to separate, so you can compare notes after!

  5. Jenny says:

    This sounds more amazing the more I hear about it — like being right inside one of those role-playing computer games. I definitely want to see it if we go to NYC this summer!

  6. Jenny says:

    For all those who said they wouldn’t want to be there alone, it’s really not scary! I wouldn’t have wanted to be there alone either, but only because then I wouldn’t have anyone to compare notes with at the end.

    I’m sorry I’m so slow about my post! I’m a rotten blogger. Yours is lovely though — I’m so amazed by how little overlap there was between what you saw and what I saw. I saw Lady Macbeth lip-synching to “Is That All There Is” — was your man doing it in the dining hall place, the bar, restaurant, whatever it was, with the nonworking piano?

    • Teresa says:

      Right at the start, I would have been scared to be left all by myself on a floor, partly because the first floor I saw was so creepy! But you’re right, it’s mostly not scary, just unsettling sometimes. And going with a friend is vital for that dark walk to the lounge! Comparing notes was a big part of the fun, too. I’m glad we split up, and I’m eager to see your post (no pressure, LOL).

      The man (I think a male witch?) was singing in a bar/restaurant/nightclub, but I didn’t notice a piano. (I was way over on the side and never went fully into the room–and I don’t think I saw the room again!) There may have been two restaurants, because I also saw a smaller one later. (I’m pretty sure it was different, anyway.)

      Did you see Lady Macbeth behind the glass in the bedroom? That was freaky, and I don’t think I mentioned it to you before.

  7. Oh gee, terribly sorry I wasn’t able to accompany you all. I am just knocking myself in the head over how BRILLIANT – I mean – how short-sighted I was! And to think, there I was in my hotel room with my feet up enjoying – I mean – MISERABLE over – having my black-and-white cookies with hot chocolate, when I could have been looking at headless babies and blood-stained crazy people! WHAT in the world got into me????!!!!!!!

  8. Wow, this sounds so cool! What an odd way to watch a play, too. Do you think knowing Macbeth ahead of time helped? I can’t wait to read Jenny’s recap to share notes.

    • Teresa says:

      I think knowing Macbeth was helpful. A lot of it would have been (even more) incomprehensible without that background. But so much of the experience was about enjoying the weirdness of the atmosphere that maybe it would be okay.

  9. sakura says:

    Such an interesting concept. Did you walk around on your own? Or were people in groups?

  10. Pingback: Sleep No More (theater production) « Jenny's Books

  11. bookssnob says:

    I wish I had come to this now! It sounds incredible! I love what a different experience you and Jenny had – that’s real performance art!

  12. Rebecca Reid says:

    um, this sounds beyond weird?

  13. Jeanne says:

    Best opening for a review ever! The appeal of feeling like you’ve gone to a fictional place, even momentarily, is like catnip to me.

  14. Harriet says:

    Only just caught up with this post — it sounds completely amazing. I have seen something similar (though not so huge) in London. Wish I could see this!

  15. Pingback: Book Expo America 2012: Recapping My Adventures Through Books

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