After leaving the Mckittrick Hotel, I found myself with various souvenirs, including a creepy white mask, a saliva-covered ring, and a (fake) bloodstain on my shirt. I also had to contain the urge to run after interesting-looking individuals on the street - not an urge I usually have after an evening of theater-going. But there was nothing usual about this particular theater piece. Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More offers audiences full immersion into its heightened world of dark corridors and dastardly deeds, a night of escapism like no other. The night unfolds something like this: after "checking in" (getting your tickets), you head up a flight of stairs and through a series of disorienting dark hallways, emerging into a jazz-era bar complete with specialty cocktails and dimly lit little tables. You are called away from the bar in small groups, given masks, told not to speak, and herded into an elevator, which spits you out into a series of rooms: fully realized replicas of abandoned hospital wards, offices, bedrooms, eerie forests and graveyards, shops, banquet halls and bars, all dimly lit and constantly filled with moody music.
You are free to explore any way you choose: props are meant to be handled and picked through. The space is littered with texts, including books, clippings on the walls, ledgers, and letters, that invite you to open and read them and discover what you may. Entries are constantly being locked and un-locked and lighting and moveable set pieces change the look of a space so significantly that you could enter a floor three times and experience it in three completely unique ways.
After wandering around for a bit, you begin to run into actors, perhaps mid-action, or running from point A to point B. The latter was most exciting to me: after wandering around aimlessly, running into an actor felt like an important discovery. Something was going to happen, and if I kept up, I would see it happen, and others wouldn’t. I’ll admit I was often disappointed by the happening itself: scenes are primarily movement-based, and while interesting and well-executed, they never satisfied my expectations. When walking around, I could, from time to time, feel completely immersed in the world of Sleep No More , as though I had stepped into a noir film myself. But the dances took me out of the reality of the space, reminding me that I was watching a performance. The characters and plot are taken from Macbeth, and if you are familiar with the Scottish King’s tale, you can make meaning out of characters’ actions and interactions, but one’s experience is so fractured and incomplete that it is difficult to connect to these elements so as to care what happens to them.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have some sort of one-on-one experience with an actor. From time to time, actors will pull audience members into small rooms, locking the door behind them. I couldn’t tell you what goes on in these rooms, but I can tell you I ached to be pulled into one of them. I did, however, have an intriguing public interaction with a woman in a red dress. As she slowly, thoughtfully ate a chicken coated in a deep red blood-like sauce, she locked eyes with me, and continued to stare into my eyes for several minutes. Her gaze was penetrating, searching, intense. Eventually, she spit out a ring, motioned me over, and, without breaking her stare, put the ring on my finger. I am not sure if I could have participated in this interaction if it wasn’t for the mask I was wearing: it protected me, kept me anonymous, less vulnerable. Though it was thrilling to be brought into this woman’s world, it was a safe thrill, a comfortable thrill.
The designers, Felix Barret, Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns, cannot be praised enough for the renovation of the McKittrick Hotel. Rooms are detailed and specific, sometimes realistic, sometimes terrifying strange or surprising, but never dull. Lighting, designed by Felix Barrett and Euan Maybank and sound, designed by Stephen Dobbie, adds a sense of magic and suspense, the constant feeling that ‘something is about to happen’ that is perhaps the most thrilling aspect of Sleep No More . And everything, everything is beautiful. Just stunningly gorgeous. It is a thrilling world to live in for a few hours.
In the end, the experience is what you make of it. It reminds me of a quintessential post-modern novel, most strikingly of House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski, which presents multiple possible ways of reading, offers puzzles in the text and invites you to dig deeper to solve them, making it easy to explore but difficult to come away with a full, unified understanding of the experience. However, the novel is filled with questions and musings that one can chew on for ages.
Sleep No More gives one puzzles to solve and choices to make, the thrill of potentiality and the chance to escape into a world much more beautiful than one’s own. But I came away wanting more: more connection to the characters and the narrative, more discomfort, more challenge, more fear. Sleep No More comes close to offering audiences a transformative experience but stops just shy of delivering. It is excellently produced and absolutely worth seeing, but not the end-all and be-all of theater experiences. See it, and dream on.