Termed by some critics as “the world’s most interactive play”, Sleep No More is an Off-Broadway immersive experience of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Created by British company Punchdrunk, Sleep No More is site-specific to the fictional ‘McKittrick Hotel’, a block of warehouses transformed into a performance space. In this review-essay, Sim Wee Ong shares her experiences of the play, and comments on its relationship to the original text of Macbeth. Sleep No More is still being performed today in New York.
Upon arrival, the McKittrick Hotel seems like the least inviting accommodation that New York City has to offer. The façade of the building is nondescript, there are no revolving doors or friendly porters, and I had to blindly stumble down a pitch-black corridor to reach the lobby-cum-bar. Drenched in red lights and smooth jazz, the Manderley Bar resembles a 1930’s speakeasy. I can’t comment on the quality of the cocktails as I’m under the legal American drinking age of 21, but I doubt any amount of liquid courage could have steeled me for my stay there. Instead of a hotel key card, I was issued a playing card and beaked half-mask that I had to don before I was allowed to explore the McKittrick’s extensive facilities: a ballroom, a dining hall, bedrooms, a hospital ward, a candy shop, a forest, a cemetery, an asylum, etc.
Of course, the McKittrick Hotel isn’t a regular hotel. Originally a warehouse space, it now contains the universe of the theatrical experience “Sleep No More”. If the title stirs the back of your mind, you’re probably familiar with “Macbeth”, widely regarded as one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Macbeth, a Scottish general, is consumed by his ambition to seize the throne, committing a string of murders to forestall a prophecy that he’ll be usurped. “Macbeth shall sleep no more,” he laments, tormented after slaying the slumbering King Duncan, the first of many casualties of his political agenda (2.2.701-703). “Sleep No More” incorporates the three words encapsulating his guilt into its title and adapts his tragedy into its production.
“Sleep No More” isn’t an ordinary play though. It’s an immersive theatrical performance in which the fourth wall conventionally dividing audiences and actors doesn’t exist. The show allows guests to follow Macbeth by literally following the tragic hero, chasing after him around the McKittrick as he seeks out soothsaying witches, consults his wife and doles out murders. A few lucky audience members each night receive coveted one-on-one scenes where they privately interact with (minor) characters. Guests can also wander from room to room; free to sit on beds, rummage through drawers, riffle through books, and even wear coats left on hooks. They cannot sit back and relax into their seats to enjoy the show; they’ll have to walk, sometimes sprint, to do so.
“Sleep No More” isn’t a typical interpretation of “Macbeth” either. Unlike Shakespearean scripts analysed in classrooms, this adaptation is bereft of confounding “thee”s and “thy”s. In fact, barely any words are uttered; the language of “Sleep No More” is dance. Just as you ruminate the word choice of your Literature texts, so too must the audience members stay cerebrally engaged to understand the dialogue between the Macbeths as they dance silently across their bedroom.
The creators of “Sleep No More” omitted Shakespeare’s line and included scenes that the Bard left off pages and stages, making the production more akin to fanfiction than a faithful adaptation of “Macbeth”. It’s one thing to listen to Macbeth confessing how he’s “done the deed” and quite another to witness him smothering King Duncan, twisting in his sheets as if ensnared in a nightmare, from the foot of the royal deathbed (2.2.665). Here, the soon-to-be-king’s weapon is choice is a pillow instead of a dagger, like in the original play (likely due to the difficulty of feigning stabbing someone before a watchful audience). Though his modus operandi is spotless, the scene turns bloody as soon the murderer washes his hands in a basin set beside the bed, attempting to rinse himself clean off his sin. I watch, horrified, as he scrubs them violently at the realization that his hands are becoming darker instead, splattering the pristine murder scene. Under the dim lights, the blood looked like ink, black and permanent.
At this point, I faced a choice – stalk the killer as he continues on his rampage, or stay behind with the victim and watch him resurrect as a ghost. With barely enough time to mourn Duncan, I let myself be swept away by the crowd scurrying in the wake of blood trails. The lack of stage boundaries in immersive theatre means that the narrative is not divided up into neat scenes. “Sleep No More” presents fresh storylines that unfurl as Macbeth’s does, and affords the audience a chance to explore more character arcs by repeating the one-hour routine twice before Macbeth meets his end. Even the painstakingly curated sets, lavished with details of invented histories, enrich the characterization of peripheral figures. By imagining their lives outside of what’s already been written, “Sleep No More” enlarges the already expansive tapestry that Shakespeare wove. It’s up to the audience member to choose which strands to tug at.
This choice-making component of “Sleep No More” is perhaps the most striking departure from traditional theatre. In the latter, the audience lacks control over what they get to see; in the former, each audience member is granted agency to decide which narratives to unravel. The caveat though, is that these experiences are both governed by choice and chance. Instead of pondering the theme of fate vs. free will (a staple in literary analyses of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”), I constantly asked myself: Which characters should I follow? Will they pick me for one-on-one scenes? Which rooms should I venture into? Will I have encounter characters or discover new information inside?
I could have returned for Duncan’s spirit in the next hour, but that would mean touring less of the world of “Sleep No More”. I would have missed out on one of the witches’ rituals I chanced upon after crawling through a concealed hole in a closet into what I can best characterize as an igloo constructed with rolled up towels. Even so, I had no inkling of that witches’ story, or that of his colleagues, or the Macduffs, or Banquo, or the detective, or the taxidermist, or the nurses… There’s still so much I left unexplored when I checked out of the McKittrick Hotel.
Although neither the first nor the only example in the genre of immersive theatre, “Sleep No More” gestures towards what theatre and literature can be. It distils the story, emotion and suspense of an Elizabethan tragedy and reimagines it as a Hitchcock-esque film noir. It is an open defiance of tradition, yet honours art forms from which it draws inspiration. The sleepwalking Lady Macbeth proclaims, “What’s done cannot be undone” (5.1.47-48). But “Sleep No More” claims the converse sentiment – what’s undone can be done.
“Sleep No More” violates so many theatrical conventions – space, time, plot, audience participation – it’s tricky to classify it as theatre. The word “theatre” can be traced back to the ancient Greek theasthai or “to behold”, accommodating a looser interpretation of theatre as performances that are observed. The guests at “Sleep No More”, however, don’t merely “behold” the action of the play; they grip the pen, authoring their experiences of the show. Given the freedom to make choices, they interact with, investigate and interpret the performance beyond the fringes of the stage. The experience of “Sleep No More” is akin to the work of reading literature. Like the audience members, the reader partakes in the painstaking art of decoding authors’ words, of researching historical and cultural contexts in which the text is rooted in, of selecting which scene to lavish attention upon.
The vastness of “Sleep No More” reflects the immensity of a single piece of literature and the attendant impossibility of grappling with it in a fleeting three hours. Its inclusion of the audience, though, demonstrates to readers the possibility of traversing the limits of the page.
SIM WEE ONG is a former student at Victoria Junior College and a current Sophomore at New York University. She spends most nights on the eighth floor of NYU’s library pursuing her dream of graduating with a major in English and American Lit and a minor Philosophy (a.k.a. studying). As a practised scaredy-cat, she wants to assure everyone that the most terrifying part in “Sleep No More” is the initial walk down the pitch-black passageway.
Photo credit: Rachel Eng