In a dimly-lit hallway, as murmurs from crowds of people at the bar slowly disappearing behind you, a woman in a full length sequined dress and bobbed hair escorts you into a holding room. You are given a mask by two silent men in all black, and fumble to put it on as you step inside an elevator. Your friend’s hand finds yours and gives it a quick squeeze: you know these are the final moments you will recognize each other. The elevator jolts upwards as the elevator attendant growls the rules: no talking, keep the mask on, you’re free to do as you please, fortune favors the bold. A stop, the doors open, and the group inside the elevator collectively inhales. One man steps out into the misty red darkness. You begin to start for the same unknown when the attendant slowly raises his arm, barring your passage. Silently the doors close in front of you, and the elevator jolts again. The attendant repeats it once more: fortune favors the bold. The doors open once more and you step into another kind of misty unknown, this one black and blue, smelling of dust and old books. There is no turning back now.
It is not a traditional play, one where you sit down in a velvet seat and ignore the wine-drenched breath of the women next to you for two hours. No, Punckdrunk’s Sleep No More defies conventions of theatre at every turn. The set is a five-story warehouse in the New York neighborhood of Chelsea, transformed by the production into the haunting McKittrick Hotel. Each visitor is given a mask to wear the whole night, and is free to wander the five stories at their leisure for three hours. There is no linear narrative, but rather coinciding events which happen simultaneously on all five floors. There is barely any speech uttered by the actors, who rely more on dance and movement than language to convey emotions or action. Your experience is completely up to you. You can choose to follow one actor the entire night, or stay in one room for an hour if you so please. It is a truly immersive, avant-garde type of theatre which has been gaining traction since its premiere in 2011.
Sleep No More combines touches of Hitchcock and witch trials and folk lore in a novel telling of Shakespeare’s chilling Macbeth. Transplanting Macbeth into a decrepit Gilded Age hotel, the production incorporates Hitchcock’s characters as side narratives to the traditional political drama. Audience members are invited to peer into desk drawers, read letters, and explore this world while the action unfolds. It has become an addictive phenomenon with followers of the show going back multiple times in an effort to unfurl all of the mysteries so tightly bound in the hotel.
Dr. Alice Dailey’s Renaissance Tragedies class was among that audience one night. The course, titled Revengers, Murderers, and Malcontents in Renaissance Tragedies seems to integrate everything in the McKittrick Hotel into its coursework, which includes the likes of Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy and Webster’s Duchess of Malfi. The class had just finished their study on Shakespeare’s Scottish Play, and it seemed a natural fit to embark on a trek to see this renowned production. And so the class packed into university vans and traveled to New York City for a class field trip.
After the show, students swapped stories about their time in the Hotel. A couple of students had been taken aside personally by the actors, and one even helped with costume changes. Everyone had different experiences over the three hours, and they could not stop talking about it all. It gave a breadth of new things to talk about in regards to Macbeth, as well as other plays on the syllabus. Themes, images, sounds, and ideas resonated long after the masks came off, further informing readings of the Renaissance texts. Subsequent classes could not pass without at least one reference to that night, it remained so vivid in the minds of each student.
Plays and dramas are meant to be seen live, to have the language on the play given life through actors and staged actions. Though readings of the text are effective and provide interesting discussion topics ranging from the sanctity of kingship to what it means to be human, it is important to experience these words as they were originally intended. And while Punchdrunk’s production was by no means traditional in its staging of Macbeth, it did what any good theatre does. It brought together members of the audience through shared, though vastly different, experience, and it stimulated deep discussion which lingered for weeks afterwards. It is unusual for students of Shakespeare to go see any show at all, let alone one of the most exciting, experimental and new productions which has become the buzz of theatre-goers worldwide. The small class of only 14 students has benefitted from the experience beyond the expression of words, proving that the adage the elevator attendant gave remains true: fortune truly does favor the bold.