This weekend we saw “Sleep No More” in New York. This is a show by the UK theatre group Punchdrunk – well, more of an experience than a show. They have taken over a hotel in Chelsea, and over 2-3 hours, dozens of rooms, and six floors, they put on something that takes the play Macbeth and builds it into much more. Which is to say they have all the main characters of Macbeth, all walking around and interacting with each other to evoke the scenes of the play, but there is no offstage. So when one scene you might recognise ends, the characters then go off to different rooms and go about their business, and you can follow them around as you like. Eventually, you/they will run into another character again, and you may then recognise what happens, or it may be something that wound up on Shakespeare’s cutting room floor (or that he never thought of in the first place).
It would be an odd thing to write a review for, since I am the only person who will ever see the exact show I saw. On balance I thought it was worth seeing, but I wish I had known more before going in, since I think I could have enjoyed it more. So instead of a review I am writing up tips for anyone who goes after me. (It is booking through April 30 at sleepnomorenyc.com.)
Two big overarching things:
1) The whole idea of the show is that while the frame of a linear narrative can only see one thing at a time, in real life things can happen to different characters simultaneously. Thus, as a viewer, you won’t see every single thing that happens in the building while you are there. You could decide to follow Lady Macbeth the whole time, or to stay and see everything that happens in the ballroom the whole time, or do a quick runaround to get the layout (you’ll have to be pretty quick; as I said, it’s six floors) to case the locations and then use your knowledge of the play to try to catch all the key scenes. The last one sounds the most exhausting, so either decide that you want to do that, to experience something as close to the known narrative as you can get – or decide not to do that, and then take it lightly when you realise you may have missed a scene here or there. In the moment, remember that that happened because that’s how you chose to do it.
2) Read the play beforehand. Even if you know the plot, you will be more tuned in to the references if they’re fresh in your mind, even if they’re only in your subconscious. Things that might otherwise seem willfully obscure will become clever and delightful. (One hopes.) Also: there is no dialogue, at least none that I saw. You get a sense of what’s happening through the movements and the expressions, but there’s no language pulling you along that you can jack into and quickly get a sense of what’s happening and where you are in the story. You’re really exploring the world of the play on your own and this is where a recent reading of it can help.
And a few other tips:
3) Don’t buy a drink when you get there – you wait in a bar inside before going into the rest of the hotel, and you can’t take drinks into the rest of the hotel, so you will end up chugging your $8 Heineken which was already silly to begin with.
4) Embrace serendipity but pay attention to lights and music – that will sometimes be your cue that something is about to happen in a space.
5) Book for an early slot – it can take three hours to see everything but the experience stops two hours after the last admission. e.g. all of the admissions at 7, 7:20, 7:40 and 8pm have to be out by 10pm. It’s a bit cheeky to charge the same price for a 7pm admission as an 8pm admission since the 7pm admission gets 50% more experience…bet you can’t guess when my slot was. But still, if you have a choice, book a night when you can be one of the first in. As of this writing the second half of April still has plenty of early slots open.
6) Rummage around as much as you like. Open doors, eat the candy in the sweet shop. They spent four months putting the space together to support that and to engage people who wanted to dig around the nooks and crannies. It’s all allowed.
7) Engage the actors if that’s your thing. Both Caroline and I were taken by the hand at separate times by an actor in the middle of a scene – Caroline was twice led to different floors, I was just danced with. It does give you the sense that while you are inhabiting their story, they want their story to be heard. Don’t expect them to speak to you (and I didn’t hear anyone trying to speak to them), but don’t feel like you must back away if an actor is walking straight towards you. It’s your choice how to handle it.
Finally, some obvious tips they tell you, but for the sake of completion: If you have glasses and contacts, wear contacts. Wear comfortable shoes. Don’t bring a heavy bag. Do check your coat, it is warmer upstairs.
Hope this helps someone out there really love the experience – a huge amount of work and thought has gone into it, and I think it deserves an audience. But see it before the end of April so Punchdrunk feel they can come home, world conquered, and start putting on great shows in London again.