Quite Continental Recommends: Sleep No More

12/05/2011 § 5 Comments

Sleep No More: the style of the 1930s, the mood of Stanley Kubrick,the feel of a haunted mansion,
the sounds of Hitchcock,the drama of Shakespeare

Cherie, I have an amazing recommendation for you!  Last week I had the excellent fortune to experience Sleep No More, produced by British theatre company Punchdrunk.  Here I am not using the word experience lightly, as Sleep No More is not a play viewers passively watch while sitting in an uncomfortable folding seat, waiting for intermission.  As an “immersive presentation,” Sleep No More thrusts its viewers into a macabre, 1930s-styled hotel to move about as they like.  Simultaneously, performers drift throughout the hotel among the audience members.  There is no stage to speak of, aside from whatever room you are standing in, and that is exactly where the actors perform a series of virtually wordless interpretive dance pieces.  Once done, they immediately depart, leaving it to you to decide if you’d like to follow them to their next scene.

Interestingly, a firm grasp of Sleep No More’s story – based loosely on Shakespeare’s Macbeth with overtones of Hitchcock’s Vertigo – is not essential to the experience.  True, the performers recreate major scenes that those with some familiarity of the play will recognize – Banquo’s ghost appears at the royal banquet, Lady Macbeth scrubs at imagined bloodstains, the witches conjure, etc. – but it would be an impossible attempt to string together the tragedy in its entirety.  (Another innovative feature of the immersive production is that there is no true linear storyline, no beginning and no end — you come to realize the actors are on a constant loop and that the play simply begins when the viewer enters the space, and ends when the viewer decides to leave.).  Instead, the story serves as a secondary element, something like a backdrop of a very sinister mood.

The runaway star of Sleep No More is the production design.  Punchdrunk took over three cavernous warehouses in Chelsea and has ingeniously transformed them into the McKittrick Hotel, a foreboding collection of over 100 rooms distributed over 6 floors, dressed with a baleful and decaying 1930s panache.  The lighting is minimal and is accompanied by a constant stream of music – some of the era, some modern – that lends well to the pervasive grimness.  Every room is meticulously curated, with every single element deliberately tended to, down to the smallest detail.  I vividly remember noticing the smell of certain rooms — the pungent scent of mothballs, of moss, of earth — as I walked through a children’s hospital, a graveyard, a taxidermist’s shop, nightclubs, dining rooms, a ballroom, bedrooms, sitting rooms, libraries, offices and gardens.  It’s worth the price of admission alone to have the opportunity to explore the dark and demented world of the McKittrick Hotel, and especially since you are able to do so at your own pace.

After arrival and “check-in” at the theatre/hotel, we found ourselves in a nightclub, complete with cocktail waitresses in glittering, deco-era gowns proffering drinks and a languid jazz chanteuse backed by a three piece band onstage.  The vibe was classy, but undeniably creepy.  We were then divided into small groups and ushered into an elevator for entry into the hotel.  In an interesting twist of fate, I was immediately separated from my companion.  After the elevator operator made clear the rules — at the McKittrick we were not allowed to talk, to use any mobile phones, or to remove the eerie, bone-white Venetian carnival mask we had been given at check-in — he brought the car to rest and opened the door.  My companion, being closest to the door crossed the threshold, but as he departed the operated barred me — and the rest of us — from leaving with him.  As the elevator doors closed again I watched a pitch black hallway swallow him up as he looked over his shoulder, watching all of us disappear with what I am sure was a shocked look on his face (I couldn’t tell for sure because of the mask, you see).

An immediate sense of unease settled over me.  I knew I wasn’t in any real danger, but I didn’t know where I was, what was going to happen, or how to find my compatriot.  The rooms were dark and there were sinister-looking artifacts everywhere.  There was more than a little blood.  Others had their friends to cling to as they experienced the McKittrick, but I couldn’t, I had to go it alone.  By the end of the night, I came to believe the best way to experience Sleep No More is alone.  It was simply amazing — an experience unlike any I’ve ever had in the theatre (and in real life, thankfully).  I didn’t sit down for two hours.  I walked up and down flights of stairs, felt my way through darkened mazes, followed strangers into creepy rooms and wandered through deserted halls.  I pulled books from shelves, opened drawers and read medical records.  Wearing my mask, I sometimes joined the crowds around the very talented performers, who generally didn’t acknowledge the audience, unless they happened to be in the way or were incorporated into the drama for a few fleeting moments with a hug, a touch, a look.   The masks and the pervasive sense of detachment immediately called to mind Eyes Wide Shut, only there was more murder, bathing and dancing, and less sex.

I emerged at the end — at the same jazz club where it all started — to find my compatriot fortifying himself with a few cocktails as he waited for me.  As we compared notes we realized that we had completely different experiences.  There was only one scene the both of us had witnessed, and we both were there for two hours.  I am hesitant to give away any of the vignettes I witnessed, lest you go to see this for yourself and feel you are missing something if you don’t see the same things, but I feel this pretty much sums it up:

Me: “Man, that was quite a bit of nudity, wasn’t it?”
Him: “What nudity?!? I was busy reading books in the library!”

Sleep No More is only in New York through 9 July.  I urge you to get tickets immediately.  I’m definitely contemplating going again, to see if I can’t find more of what the McKittrick is hiding in the shadows.

Sleep No More
The McKittrick Hotel
530 West 27th Street
New York, New York 10001

Image 1 via Quite Continental
Images 2,3,4,5,7  via Daily Front Row.
Image 6 via New York Times.

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§ 5 Responses to Quite Continental Recommends: Sleep No More

  • noelani says:

    They staged that last year here at an old school- very crept effect, and very cool concept. Made for a unique, intelligent, and fun night out. I did get sick of the masks by the end though.

  • Marissa says:

    This sounds incredible! I’ve always wanted to take part in one of those mystery dinner theaters, even though they look incredibly cheesy. This is like the high-class version. I was planning to come to New York before the McQueen exhibit closes, so now I’ll just have to plan my trip for a bit earlier so I can catch this. And the next day we’ll have a boozy brunch! 🙂

  • everydayglamour says:

    What an interesting concept! I love the idea that the actors are on a continuous loop, with the beginning and the end being up to the viewer. Fabulous description.

  • Ritournelle says:

    What a fascinating, memorable experience this seems to be! No wonder all the sessions are nearly sold out. I’m tempted…

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