I’ve just got back from a few brilliant days in New York City. I’ll tell you all about them soon but for now I feel the need to write about an experience I’ve not quite been able to get out of my head since – Sleep No More.
Created by British theatre company Punchdrunk, who are also staging an intriguing Doctor Who tie-in show in Ipswich as part of this summer’s Cultural Olympiad, it’s an immersive theatrical experience, where instead of sitting down to watch a performance you walk around the set and discover the characters for yourself. And what a set it is, 100 rooms over five floors inside three converted warehouses in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. There are only two rules – you should not talk and you must wear a chilling plague doctor-style white beaked mask at all times.
I read a small amount about it beforehand, enough to know that it’s set in a hotel and is an abstract, noirish take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth with a liberal sprinkling of Hitchcockian references, particularly to Vertigo (it’s called the McKittrick Hotel and Bernard Herrmann’s score can be heard at times) and Rebecca (the hotel bar is called the Manderley and one of the characters may or may not be the second Mrs. de Winter). Other than that, I felt it best to go in without knowing much about the show.
For that reason, if you’ll be in New York soon and are planning to go, it’s probably a good idea not to read on beyond this paragraph, where I’ll go into more detail about my night in the McKittrick. It’s best to have your first Sleep No More experience (I’ve since learned that many people have gone multiple times) spoiler-free. What I would say, though, is to make sure you’re wearing comfortable shoes as you’ll be doing a lot of walking and sometimes running up and down stairs. It’s worth knowing that the performances loop three times over the three hours, each time climaxing in a version of Macbeth’s famous banquet scene, which can help you get your bearings, with the banquet having a different ending at the end of the night. Also, there’s no right or wrong way to experience Sleep No More, whether you prefer to explore the rooms on your own and take in their rich detail or follow a character around to see their story arc play out, it’s a rewarding experience.
Again, what follows is a lengthy account of my personal experience of the show, but it does contain lots of spoilers so please don’t read on if you’re planning on experiencing it for yourself.
As I queued outside with my friend Liam, someone in front of us asked the doorman when the performance starts. “As soon as you step through the door” came the reply. We walked in an found ourselves in a dimly lit hotel lobby. After checking our coats in the cloakroom, we walked up to the reception where we were offered two cards and asked to pick. I got the two of clubs, Liam the three. We were then led up some stairs into a pitch-black maze of fabric-lined corridors, the only light coming from the corners. Already I was disoriented, not quite knowing which direction I was now facing as I emerged into a glamorous red 1940s jazz bar. I noticed a woman sat at a table dressed like Jessica Rabbit who I hadn’t seen in the queue and realised she was a character. We ordered a couple of drinks (NOT the absinth shots that were on offer, though) and stood by the bar as a man with an undone bow tie around his collar walked up to the Shure 55 microphone on stage and, in a slow monotone drawl, told those with ace cards to drink up and follow him. A few minutes later he returned, and simply said “Deuces” – it was my turn.
I followed him into a small side room with around a dozen others where we were given our masks and he instructed us that there will be “no more voices”. Next, the woman I’d seen earlier came in to tell us that we must always keep our masks on and that if it all gets too much for us, we can always go and find her in the bar, “I like the company”. Finally, we were shepherded into a goods lift where we were met by a porter who told us as we were going up several floors that “fortune favours the brave”. I was standing right next to the door, but as he opened it he said “ladies first”. A girl standing next to me edged towards the darkness beyond but squealed before she crossed the threshold. Another woman who was behind us both bravely stepped forward and before anyone else could follow, the porter slammed the lift door shut, leaving her out there, wherever “out there” was. We moved up or down a floor – I couldn’t quite tell – and with the adrenalin now pumping through my body I was ready to walk through the door and into the unknown. I noticed the previously squeamish girl had followed me but couldn’t sense whether anyone else did – certainly the full ten or so others from the lift weren’t behind me as I walked down the barely lit corridor.
The first room I came across was a long hospital ward with around eight beds, each with a crucifix and detailed medical notes. I hadn’t quite gotten used to the idea of being hands-on with the set yet, but if I had I’d apparently have discovered that one of the beds was full of potatoes. There was a matron’s station to one side of the ward, while the other was so dark I couldn’t see what was there. As I edged closer I saw that there was a baby’s cot in that corner of the ward. I wasn’t quite ready for that level of creepiness yet and backed away, moving towards a doorway on the side of the ward. There, I found myself in a corridor with a doorway leading to another large space and another which lead to a much smaller room. I went to the small room first, it had a candlelit ambience and some religious icons on a high shelf. In the centre of the room was a display cabinet with frames containing nails (somehow I thought crucifixion nails) arranged in different pattens. Very creepy. I felt like I was walking thorough a videogame, something like Resident Evil 4. I went back through the other doorway where the eeriness notched up another level. There were a number of baths laid out in a similar pattern to the beds in the hospital ward and there, in the middle of the room, was a nurse repeatedly, almost mechanically, lifting a shirt in and out of the bath water. Then came perhaps the only moment that the dread turned to out-and-out fear for me – it didn’t register with me at first but after a few moments I saw a figure in a white mask staring through the window at her. It was another audience member, perhaps someone I’d shared the lift with, but for that brief moment they were terrifying.
I went out of the door and discovered a forest maze of sticks and twigs. There was a cool breeze in the air, it felt like I was outside, and as I made my way around I discovered a small wooden cabin. It was locked but I pressed my eye up against a tiny gap in the wood and could just about see a teapot and cup on a table with cut pages of a book hanging above it. I mistakenly thought it was a puzzle and took a little too long trying to figure it out. Eventually, I moved on, back into the hospital corridor where I discovered that this was a psychiatric hospital – there was a psychologist’s office with more cut up pages and notes on the desk about the disturbed Lady Macbeth, another room with a microscope and slides, a creepy room with what looks like an old dentists chair and some instruments of either surgery or torture and, most disturbingly of all, a padded cell with a straitjacket on the stained floor and feathers sticking out of the wall.
I continued on to the stairs, where I saw that I was on the fifth floor and access up to the sixth was blocked by someone in wearing a similar mask to mine, but instead of white it was black. This was one of the ushers in this most unusual of theatres. These “black masks” are dotted around the rooms, there to help anyone who feels overcome, point out the way to the toilets or, as in this case, stop you going where you’re not supposed to.
I went down to the third floor (I don’t know why I skipped past the fourth) and found my first big crowd of the night. They were in a grand, palatial bedroom, gathered around a bathtub where who I presumed was Lady Macbeth was giving Macbeth a bath, washing blood off him. As she dried him off, I walked over to the French window which looked out over a foggy, desolate courtyard. As I wandered around, I saw a hooded statue in the gloom. At the time, I couldn’t be sure if it was a statue or a person in costume and I didn’t want to get any closer to find out. So, I went back to the safety of the bedroom. Macbeth was now gone, along with most of the crowd. Lady Macbeth was in bed and started to play out a wonderful interpretation of the sleepwalking scene. Until now I have never understood the appeal of modern dance, but this had everything – the gymnastic way she convulsed and backflipped on the bed, the manic terror on her face as she went to the bath and tried to wash off the imaginary blood on her hands, the spider-like way she clambered backwards up the bedroom furniture into a hidden glass box in the wall, it was all incredible. Unashamedly, anonymous behind our masks, my fellow voyeurs and I watched as she disrobed in the glass box and put on a dress.
What followed was a bit of a blur. I followed Lady Macbeth for a while along with several others. We arrived on the fourth floor, an Edwardian street, where we ran into Macbeth being followed by his own audience, like two gangs marching towards each other in West Side Story. We then went down to the second floor, the hotel, where we went down to the ballroom for the banquet where a bloodied Banquo’s ghost appeared. Sat at the table were several characters I hadn’t seen at all on my travels so far. On the way back up stairs, one of the characters pushed past me, rushing to get somewhere. I found Lady Macbeth again, this time up in the hospital, where the nurse bathed her.
I then had a wander around on my own, finding all sorts of things. A sweet shop stocked full of humbugs and fruit chews, where I joined a girl in a white mask who was helping herself to the treats behind the counter. A graveyard where I could feel the cold soil under my feet. A photographic dark room hidden away behind some curtains, where photos of a murder victim were being developed. An incredibly creepy room where a cot was surrounded by dozens of headless dolls. A musty living room full of the smell of old books, where the pregnant, ill-fated Lady Mcduff was dancing with such vigour that she was slamming herself into the furniture, before literally climbing up the walls of the hallway outside, dancing with her husband on a shelf. Letters, books, diaries featuring lines from the play. A cupboard I opened containing photo of a bird and a feather-stuffed photo frame with playing cards pinned to the insides of the doors. A hotel breakfast room dominated by a stuffed moose, where I found Lady Macduff eating some toast and then dancing with a nurse across the tables and chairs, at one point pirouetting me out of the way so an elaborate move could be performed. A funeral parlour with notes pinned to an empty coffin and a hint of lavender in the air. A hidden speakeasy made out of cardboard boxes where two men had a dance-fight on a pool table with a lamp swinging overhead. A crypt where a character (perhaps Duncan?) lay dead and was being mourned by others. I didn’t know what had happened to him. And lots of going up and down stairs, sometimes at my own pace, sometimes running after characters.It was easy to forget that the audience members who weren’t travelling in herds weren’t part of the show. Once I opened a door to find someone sat at a desk reading a letter slowly turn their masked face towards me. Another time, there was a scene where two characters sat down at a table together and an audience member pulled up a third seat and sat with them. I enjoyed seeing people who had found their friends clicking their fingers and pointing when they spotted a character to run after.
We then went back down to the ballroom where the banquet scene took place again, resetting everything to the beginning of the loop. I felt a tap on my shoulder, it was Liam. Silently, with nods and points, we explored the final hour together, pointing out places we’d found that the other might not have spotted. I took him to the forest, which was not empty this time. The nurse was walking around the maze, going back and forth, sometimes stopping and sometimes running. As she stopped at the corner near the cabin, a bright light shone through the wood and she got a piece of chalk, scrawling a line from the play on a tree with a look of angst and terror on her face. Suddenly, she fainted, her head landing at my feet. From nowhere, another nurse appeared and carefully helped her to her feet. A few more people joined us as they walked to the cabin in the woods, which was now unlocked. The second nurse sat down and cradled the first on a chair inside. Then, the second nurse left and the first took the hand of an audience member standing next to me and brought her inside the cabin, slamming the door shut. We couldn’t see what happened inside.
Later, Liam beckoned me to a room I hadn’t found before. It was the bar we had started in, except it wasn’t – it was exactly the same, but as if it had been left to rot for the best part of a century. The well-stocked bar was now all empty glasses and cobwebs, chairs were piled up in the corner, the room was illuminated by a low, blueish hue. Macbeth appeared, followed by the people I didn’t recognise from the banquet, what I now know are the witches. This was to be perhaps the most famous scene in the play, the Weird Sisters’ prophecies. Up until now the music had been a mix of Glenn Miller, Peggy Lee, Billy Holiday and Herrmann’s Hitchcock themes. But now some electro beats started to fade up as the witches and Macbeth started to dance and we gathered in a circle around them. As the music built up, their clothes started to come off and the lighting got darker when there was sudden quick flash which made it seem that all that could be seen was the circle of white masks. And then loud, thumping full-on jungle kicked in, with strobe lights and green lazers, a naked guy with a goat’s head, topless witches, and Macbeth’s face smeared with blood. It was Eyes Wide Shut set in the dance tent at Glastonbury. To think, I would have completely missed that scene if I hadn’t bumped into Liam.
We then went down to the ballroom one last time to see the banquet again, but this time with a very different, spectacular denouement. After that, we were ushered back to the bar, where a lively party was in full swing, a jazz band on the stage and seemingly hundreds of now maskless audience members were packed in, having a drink.
It was an astonishing night. As we walked away from the McKittrick, just like all the other groups of friends, we compared our journeys, telling each other about the moments only one of us saw. Even now, days after, I can’t shake it out of my mind.
Looking online in the time since, I’ve discovered things neither of us got to see. Occasionally the person who goes out of the lift first finds themselves on the forbidden sixth floor, where they are pushed in a wheelchair by one of the nurses and treated to the opening lines from Rebecca. Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, sits in the corner of the dilapidated bar and sometimes asks an audience member to deliver a message – if they pass the test, they are taken into a hidden room where they are given a cup of tea and told a story about a boat, before a paper boat is put in their tea which turns it blood-red and it starts to rain. I’ve even heard unconfirmed rumours that collecting a set of specific objects will grant you access to a series of hidden rooms which finishes up with you being allowed to become a character for the rest of the evening.
I don’t know what I enjoyed the most. Wandering around the beautifully decorated and incredibly detailed set. Watching the extraordinarily acrobatic and expressive dancing. Being freaked out by the dark corners and disturbing scenes. Chasing after actors like contestants running after Richard O’Brien in the Crystal Maze. Taking in the period music and gorgeous costumes. Feeling like I was in the middle of a living and breathing David Lynch movie. Seeing some boobies. There was so much to enjoy.
Sleep No More was one of a number of unforgettable memories I’ve brought back from New York. I’d strongly recommend that anyone who has the chance to experience it does so. No idea if it’ll come to London at any point, but if Punchdrunk’s other productions are as good as this, I’ll definitely keep an eye out for anything they put on in future.