New Yorkers are used to being close, pressed together in humid subway cars and queues, shuffling past one another in cramped bars and on narrow sidewalks. The crucial rule of thumb: never touch. Disturbed city dwellers are notoriously unfriendly.
Yet at the esoteric and immersive show known as Sleep No More, those typically standoffish New Yorkers are invited to touch, rummage and pry. The gripping performance from the theater company Punchdrunk is a psychosexual take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth as told through the noir lens of Hitchcock’s Rebecca and embellished with the historical flavor of the Salem Witch Trials.
In brief, Sleep No More offers up a dramatic, paranoid, sultry and murderous portrayal of humanity. While the play and most of its characters are indeed rooted in Shakespeare, the performance has little dialogue. Instead, the story is told through the actors’ movements through a meticulously detailed six-floor set.
“Lechery, sir, it provokes and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance,” says the Porter to Macduff in The Bard’s Scottish play—a few words that adeptly capture the inherent contrasts in the sensuality of Sleep No More. There is nudity, but the audience isn’t engaging in lechery. We are masked voyeurs whose ardor is never at risk of “taking away” the performance.
Perhaps because it’s so all-encompassing. Audience members are asked to turn in their belongings, including their phones, and to wear ghostly Venetian masks for the entirety of the show. “The mask is our theater seat,” said Felix Barret, Punchdrunk’s founder and artistic director, in a 2015 interview. It creates a necessary divide. The characters are tormented by shame and paranoia while we are spared from it, shrouded by masks that render us faceless—and blameless—as a macabre plot unravels before us.
Staging Sleep No More on multiple floors of the McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea, versus in a traditional theater, gives the audience the freedom to engage uninhibitedly and create their own experiences. Each masked audience member roams the expansive set however they’re moved to in the moment. Some chase actors up and down staircases and through the maze-like sets to follow their storylines. Others wander, searching for the narrative in the set itself.
There’s a team at Punchdrunk that’s focused solely on small details—they pepper the set with easter eggs hidden behind photographs and books. The production is unabashedly hands-on, and audience members rifle through drawers and dark corners, hoping to unearth hidden aspects of the story—of which there are many. From the bouncer at the door who greets guests with an ominous “Are you ready?” to Macbeth himself, every staff member contributes to the total immersion this sultry, nightmarish and beautiful hellscape.
The audience enters through a pitch-black tunnel that leads to the Manderley Bar—a reference to Hitchcock. The light is maroon and purple; staff are in lavish gowns and suits. Everything from the food and drinks to the atmosphere has the veneer of a sexy noir film. Solo jazz performers play throughout the room in a synchronous symphony that sets the stage for the evening’s entertainment. It feels like we’re transported to a Prohibition-era speakeasy or perhaps we’ve been dropped into a living movie no one dressed for.
At Sleep No More, confusion is key. The entire play is performed twice, yet it’s hard to catch a cohesive storyline. This is intentional; the freedom to dip in and out of characters and scenes lets the audience not search for a plot or score the success of the cast’s rhetorical interpretation of Shakespeare. Instead, we are given the pleasure of discovering the raw human story beneath each scene, detail and touch—insofar as we can.
It’s just not a show one can absorb in its totality in a night. I’ve attended Sleep No More twice, and despite feeling like I had the lay of the land during my second viewing, I saw scenes, characters and portions of the set that were new to me. It’s easy to get lost—audience members are almost encouraged to. The show’s six-floor set has not only a ballroom, a study and living quarters but also a dance hall, a forest and an asylum. Rumor tells of a seventh floor that only a lucky few, plucked from the audience, have seen. After my most recent visit, I can confirm the rumor is true.
Sleep No More offers a cerebral and bodily experience made possible only by the staggering skill and vulnerability of the cast. Early in the show, I find Lady Macbeth in her drawing room. I see her touch up her makeup, examine her complexion and consider herself solemnly in the mirror. Four other masked audience members crowd around her in this cramped space; I feel out of place. Surely, this moment is too private to be witnessed in such intimate proximity?
But the most unforgettable moment (which I am lucky to witness on both of my trips into this haunting hotel) can only be described as a psycho-horror-light-show-rave involving the show’s Three Witches.
In what appears to be a disused dance hall, a witch guides us into an eerie darkness. Another of the “weird sisters,” in a red gown, seems to be speaking in hymns and flails her arms as if casting a spell or beckoning a storm. Suddenly, a third witch—in this production, played by a man—enters with Macbeth. Their interactions are heated, emotions from a storyline from another corner of the set. Then light pierces the darkness, coming down like a stroke of lightning.
What followed was an optical illusion I have yet to make sense of… the light rapidly flashed and characters appeared to move in stop motion. The witch in red was across the room, but when I blinked next, she was inches from my face and crouched at my knees, emanating a stentorian scream that sounded like a howl for mercy. Across the room, another witch gave birth to a bloodied fetus. When the light flashed next, Macbeth was holding the child in his arms. As the light show progressed, the witches became increasingly bare, two of them topless with the male witch nude and wearing a decapitated horse head.
This descent into madness ends abruptly as the witches break away into separate corners of the set. I follow the horse-headed witch, now clearly disturbed, into a shower in which he seems to want to cleanse himself. Of terror? Of shame? He crouches in the corner of what is surely a cold deluge and weeps. I and six others watch as he descends into all-consuming despair. Again, I think we shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be here. But just as I convince myself our presence is unfit and unwanted, the nude witch extends his hand to us—reaching out to masked strangers in his vulnerability. His hand hangs in the air, and eventually, someone passes him a towel.
I’m not sure that’s what he wanted; his gesture was a riddle, yet the audience’s spontaneous response seemed expected and meticulously choreographed. In another scene, I followed Lady Macbeth, led by a nurse into the asylum. She is directed to the bath, where she strips and bathes herself. Haunted by a crime I had not yet witnessed, the water turns to blood. Still naked, she emerges from the water and reaches out to the audience; we all linger in hesitation until someone helps her out of the tub.
These scenes are Punchdrunk at its finest; we witness moments so unthinkably private that we are forced to reckon with our own humanity. It’s tactile in a way most theater isn’t. Barrett finds touch essential to the experience, “it’s about human connection… like a relationship you would only have with a family member or lover.”
Leaving the asylum, I was unprepared for what I would encounter in the next corridor. Startled to find another cast member, I took a sharp step back. In response, the menacing nurse locked eyes with me and extended her arm—seemingly the show’s signature move. But I grasped her hand, and she led me up previously hidden stairs, and I realized I was being taken to the aforementioned seventh floor.
Alone now, we enter a pitch-black room that feels expansive, but I can’t tell if I’ve been led into a closet or a ballroom. She gently pushes me into the wall behind us and whispers in my ear, “I’ve been dreaming of our days at Manderly. Do you want to return to the days of Manderly?” Startled by her touch and the feel of her breath on my earlobes, I was unsure if I was being subdued or seduced. Opting to gamble, I nod. She placed me in a wheelchair with arm restraints and proceeded to wheel me through a tunnel of darkness.
“Do you remember the stars we used to watch together?” she asked as a dim constellation appeared on the ceiling. I began to wonder: who am I in all of this? Manderly is a reference to the Manderley Mansion from the 1938 novel Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier, which Hitchcock adapted into a noir film. Am I Rebecca, in a Macbeth daydream turned nightmare?
Before I could decide, my wheelchair snapped back and I lay horizontal, staring at flickering lights behind foliage that was certainly a nod to the malignant ivy said to cloak the Manderley Mansion in Du Maurier’s novel. The nurse traced my arms and neck with her hands, then gripped my elbows as if taking my pulse. But suddenly my chair was upright, and she was racing me back down the ominous corridor while telling me we could “never go back to Manderley again.” Almost as soon as the encounter had begun, it was over. I was left staggering, banished from Manderly.
“Present fears are less than horrible imaginings,” Macbeth tells us in the first act of the tragedy. The fictionalized pain, suffering and horrors of Sleep No More are punctuated by our punishing proximity. Our imaginings feel remarkably truthful and present, while our real-world selves linger somewhere back at the Manderley Bar.
The show ends in the ballroom with Macbeth’s death, and several audience members meet hands with the remaining living characters before we, the masquerade, are led back to the bar. I was led by a character I had yet to encounter, and when we reached the doors of Manderly, he placed my back against the wall and removed my mask. I felt as bare naked as the witch from the shower, confronted with my material self again, but the bar band played 1930s-style renditions of Nirvana and A-ha, easing us slowly back into the present day.
It’s a necessary transition. The Sleep No More experience is one in which the rules of intimacy—emotional and physical—are bent. For New Yorkers, it is an ideal respite from a disconnected everyday reality paired with the chance to experience an artful portrait of humanity in its most raw, elemental form. Audience members find a human connection by disconnecting from the self.
Tickets for Sleep No More are currently available through December 3.