I’m taking the opportunity of just having seen Then She Fell, an immersive theatre experience based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels (and on his relationship with Ms. Liddell) to re-post a lightly-edited version of my review from a couple of years ago of Sleep No More, the king of all immersive theatrical experiences. Sleep No More is actually threatening to close, in the middle of June, so I urge readers as strongly as possible: see it while you still can.
It’s not entirely fair for me to call Sleep No More a production of Macbeth. Among other things, apart from the title I only heard one line from the play – “they say blood will have blood” – in the two and a half hours that I spent in the McKittrick Hotel. But whatever it is – and I’ll talk a bit below about trying to read Sleep No More as a production of Macbeth– Sleep No More is a theatrical experience that you don’t want to miss, if only because it’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen.
The folks from Punchdrunk have taken over a trio of Chelsea warehouses and outfitted them as the McKittrick Hotel, a noir-esque horror fantasia palace. When you arrive, you are given a playing card and a Venetian mask, and told not to lose the card, not to take off the mask, and not to speak until you leave the hotel (or take a break at the hotel bar). And then you are let loose to wander as you please through five floors of insanely outfitted rooms.
I’ll throw out a few illustrative examples of the insanity, just to give you the flavor, though no description really does justice to the experience. A hospital ward where all the beds are bathtubs. An enchanted, blue-lit forest of birch trees, inhabited by stuffed mountain goats and a mysterious cabin that seems to belong to the nurse from the hospital. A witch’s herbarium, the overpowering sensation upon entry not sight or sound but smell. The Macduff living quarters, a perforated teddy bear on the bed, a wall-sized mirror beside that, when you look in it, you see right through yourself to the bed behind … and on the sheets and covers gouts of blood that was not so before. (And, indeed, there’s no such thing; turn around and you’ll see, the bed is clean. I have absolutely no idea how they did it.)
You wander in and out of rooms, encountering your fellow masked ghouls as you enter, leave, search drawers and cabinets (there may be hidden messages scrawled therein), examine half-developed photographs of murder in Malcolm’s darkroom. You walk down the hallway and pass other ghouls typing a typewriter, ruffling through files, staring back at you from windows on a graveyard. The addition of actors is almost superfluous.
But not entirely. When you first see someone not wearing a mask, it’s almost a shock. A living being! We must follow him (or her) – we are hungry ghouls, and feed on the life force of the living. And they have quite a bit of life force. There’s almost no dialogue in the production, and most of the action takes the form of stylized and repetitive activity – some of it dance-like, some of it less-coherent writhing (which, truth be told, did little for me), but all of it aggressive. Even Duncan, who sleepwalks to his doom (I thought that was Lady M’s job?) does so with vigor, pulling the veils off endless ticking clocks as he staggers.
I caught several scenes that I could identify as being from the play. I followed Lady Macbeth to her bedroom (a large bed filled one corner, but the center of the room was dominated by a spot-lit bathtub on a podium), where she read the letter from her husband, then, when he arrived, danced the dance of the femme fatale before changing for the banquet to celebrate Duncan’s arrival. I followed her to that banquet, where we saw her dance coquettishly with the doomed Scottish king while her husband looked on, the other guests including a grossly pregnant Lady Macduff and her husband – and, strangely, a blonde bombshell who pulled off her wig and was transformed into a writhing bald witch.
Later, I encountered Duncan and his clocks. He sleep-walked his way through that room and out, into a hallway where cushions were laid out on the floor under a tented canopy, and there he lay himself to sleep. No drugged guards watched over him, and when Macbeth came, he did not stab, but smothered him with the pillows, feathers flying. Yet somehow he still got covered in blood, and Lady Macbeth had to strip him down to wash the stain away in her bathtub, only to taint herself instead. Much later, I ran into Macbeth racing upstairs, and turned to follow him to a witches’ sabbath: lit by a flashing strobe, two seminude female witches cavorted with a nude male minotaur, and nursed the bloody child of Macbeth’s second vision.
But other scenes seemed to have nothing to do with the source play.
A lady in red right out of a pulp crime novel eats a meal at a cafe table, only to find something strange in her food. She worries it with her tongue, then spits it out: a wedding ring. She beckons one of the ghouls to approach, places it on his finger, and begins to sing – or, rather, lip-synch – a haunting and creepy cover (by a male voice I didn’t recognize) of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is.” A thematically apposite song for Macbeth if ever there was one, and a viscerally powerful scene.
I, individually, was pulled into another scene, a one-on-one in the cabin in the woods with the nurse. When she gently removed off my mask, I was hyperventilating – I don’t know whether because I was afraid I would laugh, and break the spell, or because I was so fully in the moment that I was afraid of her, of being locked in this cabin in the woods with a mysterious witch nurse who was about to reveal to me secrets it were better I did not know. As it happened, she also told me a story of disillusion – about an orphan boy who tried to fly to heaven, only to discover that the moon, sun and stars were really rotten wood, a broken piss-pot and flying bugs. Objectively, not the most powerful story ever told, but in context, and told by a woman coming closer and closer to my face, until our noses were almost touching, it absolutely terrified me. I had to turn away and grab her arm – if I hadn’t, I don’t know if I would have kissed her or screamed.
As you can probably tell from my breathless descriptions, I’m a sucker for this sort of thing (not that I even know what “sort” of thing this is – I’ve never seen, or, more correctly, been inside, a show like this before). Effects that would be cheesy in a traditional play or movie – blue-lit fog on a graveyard; a red-headed woman in a red dress and red lipstick singing a sad song – become electrified when you are in the movie, in the play. I wandered through the woods, genuinely afraid that the right road would be lost; it was trivially easy to forget that I was in a play. It was even easier to forget that I wasn’t in the play, that I was in the audience – my fellow audience members sure looked like they were in the cast, or at least part of the scenery.
As you can also probably tell, a great deal of the imagery derives from film. The period and many of the individual objects are clearly intended to recall classic film noir and Hitchcock. But I felt like the real guiding spirit of the enterprise was Kubrick, an amalgam of “The Shining” (blood, mazes of woods, typewriters with creepy messages and endless repetition of the same catchphrases of horror, but most of all just the experience of wandering endlessly in a horror hotel) and “Eyes Wide Shut” (the Venetian masks, obviously, and the formal, ritual quality of the nudity and sexual writhing, and more generally the voyeurism of the whole enterprise – plus I kind of thought Lady Macbeth was got up to remind us of Nicole Kidman). If you’ve never wanted to be trapped inside a Kubrick film, well, I can’t say I really blame you, but you don’t know what you’re missing.
But what, in the end, does it tell us about Macbeth?
Not so much, and yet a great deal.
What’s lost from Macbeth isn’t just the language. It’s true that’s lost – but it’s also lost in what’s probably my most favorite production of Macbeth, Akira Kurosawa’s movie, “Throne of Blood” which, since it’s in Japanese, doesn’t have a single line from Shakespeare. Macbeth’s language can be an inspiration for the visual imagination of an adapter, and if it is then the language isn’t really lost at all, just transformed. A knowledgeable reader of the play will experience the connection between the vision and the text, will see what’s on the page, the text playing in his or her mind as a kind of remembered soundtrack.
But in Sleep No More, the story is also lost. I didn’t get a real sense of relationship between any of the characters – even between Macbeth and Lady M – from this production. Nor, even in isolation, did their characters feel sharply defined. This murderous pair, they weren’t individuals, they were icons – more specifically, icons out of film noir, playing out the scenes from Macbeth. This is a considerable reduction from Shakespeare. Lady Macbeth, for example, is a more complex figure than a noir femme fatale – indeed, her character can be understood as, herself, reacting to that kind of iconic figure, trying to play out that role in order to achieve her goals. She’s a real person playing the part of a cold-hearted killer – that’s why she can be driven mad, as the classic noir women are not. (If those women have a weakness, it’s that they may have fallen in love with the men they are trying to dupe – or is that just another plot? Depends on the movie.) Shakespeare takes us on what looks like a familiar journey – man is tempted by evil forces/an evil woman, and is undone by his crime – but then takes us places we didn’t expect to go. (Macbeth achieves a kind of apotheosis of nihilism by the end – he stares into the abyss so long that the abyss has to look away.) By returning us to the archetypes that lie behind Shakespeare’s play, Sleep No More returns us as well to a more comfortably familiar story.
And yet, the production does achieve one thing that so many productions of Macbeth fail at. It brings us into the world of Macbeth’s imagination. Indeed, sitting in the McKittrick hotel bar after the show, I decided that this was the best way to look at the play: not as an enactment of the play Macbeth but as a tour of the character Macbeth’s mind, full of scorpions as it is (and I believe I saw some of those in the taxidermy room).
Macbeth is not a terribly bright man – he never thinks more than one step ahead, and his first response is always brutally direct – but he has a powerfully vivid imagination. And so it seems appropriate to think of his mind as stuffed full of stock icons from horror and noir – bloody bathtubs, broken dolls, lip-synching women in red dresses and silent ghouls in Venetian masks – all rendered with boldness and specificity, and recombined to a total vision that is overwhelming in its power when experienced directly, unmediated, as the participating audience for Sleep No More does. A man whose mind was overwhelmed by these kinds of images, yeah, I could understand how he could turn into Macbeth. And if we really want to understand him, we need to see what he sees. Which this production enabled me to do as no other one has.