Review: Tips on enjoying Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More in NYC

Mr and Mrs Macbeth

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

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.

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12 Responses to Review: Tips on enjoying Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More in NYC

  1. Aliceson says:

    Thanks! I am off in two weeks so this is useful.

    On a side note – Did you find any of the internal bar(s)? And is there more than one? At previous shows the hidden bar(s) often turn into the liveliest part of the show so I don’t want to miss them!

    • Cabe says:

      Didn’t see any hidden internal bars – at one point we made it into the non-hidden bar (the bar where you wait to go in), which was transformed during the show into something more keeping with the theme (i.e. not a bar, and a lot more mist). The whole vibe of the show is spooky/ethereal, I’m not sure a hidden bar would have added to it…but you are the insider and I’m sure you’ll come back with tales of a speakeasy that made cocktails with Shakespearean ingredients – eye of newt and all that

      • Rob says:

        Interestingly, the bar you found Cabe, was not the same one you entered at the beginning…. It was an exact replica of the Manderley bar at the entrance but a few floors up.

  2. Christie says:

    I’m confused as to why the weekend early rate is $95 and the late rate is $85. If you get there at 8:00 can you stay until 2 am? Is there any truth to the fact that the later shows are more risque?

    • Cabe says:

      I think they clear the place out between the first and the second show – so they are probably just trying to attract people to the later show by lowering the price. And I don’t believe the later shows are more risque, but I can’t know for sure. All I know is everyone I know who has gone has seen some nudity, both male and female. But apparently I missed the most risque scene of all, six writhing actors/actresses and a donkey’s head. If you see it come back and tell us how it was.

  3. Ken says:

    I saw it. Strobe lights. Rave music. Blood. An infant. A guy in a moose head. Everyone’s naked except for the creepy redhead in the corner.

  4. Pingback: Tracking the Scottish Play: The Sounds of Sleep No More « Delirium Dog Barkings

  5. troll alfakrøll says:

    I enjoyed it a lot! however, I find that it is something you just do once. It’s an experience, but it’s like a movie, it’s best the first time you watch it. Still people might enjoy a movie very highly and thus the lust to visit again. I would definetly recommend it, but bringing children under the age of say 15 is not recommended, seeing as the act is quite intense (depends on your kid of course, some can handle it better then others). Lastly I just want to say that this show is different from anything you’ll ever see (probably), and it is quite speciall, but of course if your fond of such, and you find that this is just your cup of tea then go right a head.

  6. M says:

    I’m quite a baby when it comes to scary movies, haunted houses, etc. I’m still afraid of the dark, you get the gist. But the reviews for this show made it impossible for me to pass up my invitation to go with a friend. Is it possible to remain with a group, or at least with one other person the whole time? I guess as time goes on, I’ll become more comfortable and break away on my own, but just to ease my anxiety at the moment, is it possible to stay with someone the whole time? I’m a dancer and a theater junkie which is why I refuse to pass up this offer but the only thing that is bothering me is how scary it might be.

  7. Cabe says:

    Yes, you can stay with one person the whole time if you like – they won’t actively try to separate you, or anything. So you can go in and see how you feel – it is dark and they play evocative music, but it doesn’t feel menacing or unsafe in any way. Hope you enjoy it!

  8. kate says:

    A couple of other tips:
    go off on your own, it’s way more fun
    be silent. don’t be rude and break the rules or trample over people to see a scene… it is impossible to see everything

  9. My friend took me to Sleep No More back in May, but I had no clue what to expect. I really enjoyed it, but I spent most of my time poking around in drawers and less observing scenes, I also spent a lot of time in the maze because it was just so gorgeous. I’m going again in Sept, this time I’m taking my husband and treating him for our 13th anniversary. It’ll be his first trip to NYC and I can’t imagine a more unique experience!

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