When I was in NYC in 2018, I went to see Sleep no more, an immersive theatrical production by Punchdrunk Love. It is the darkest and most intense theatrical play I have ever experienced in my life.
It takes place at a repurposed 6-floor building, the McKittrick Hotel and loosely follows the story of MacBeth but with a 1940’s noir nightmare feel. It all starts at the Manderley bar, which looks like a cabaret bar.
We are told to wear our faceless white masks during the performance, like a reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and we are explicitly instructed to remain silent at all times. The sense of anonymity adds to the mysterious nature of this play and creates a fourth wall between the actors and the audience. Anything can happen!
“Fortune favors the bold”, says our host mischievously as she drops 15 of us off on one of the hotel’s floors.
The audience is then free to choose their own story. You can wander through the Hitchcock-inspired set, with dark hallways and heavy drapes at your own pace. Each room is a different world — a forest maze, a funeral parlour, a hospital ward of empty beds, a giant ballroom.
You are encouraged to interact with the set or follow the performers. Each performer wanders around the hotel, wearing eccentric outfits ranging from Deco-era evening clothes to lingerie to even nothing at all, but they are not wearing masks. They move quickly and invite you to join them as their roles interact with the other characters around them. They do so via suggestive and fluid movements, dance and performance — there is almost no spoken language throughout the play. It feels like every detail around you is a trigger to listen to your unconscious desires.
I was very curious about the famous “one-on-one” scenes. These are unique personalised journeys where a character draws one audience member into an isolated area and tells a story, gives them a quest or reveals hidden details about them. It’s the only time they are allowed to speak during the performance! I hoped that the performers would pick me that night.
I decided to follow this mysterious woman who was wearing a magnificent red dress. Later I found out that she was playing the role of Hecate, the Goddess of witchcraft. Just like in the original Macbeth, she is the behind-the-scene manipulator of most of the bloody tragedies in the show.
I stood in front of her, together with 50 other people from the audience, watching as she was being washed with a blue light and walked dramatically on the stage. We locked eyes, she then came towards me, grabbed my hand and took me in the next room.
Everyone followed us. She placed a firm hand on my shoulder and put me up against the wall. She whispered in my ear in “ I have been waiting all night for you… wait here, I will return.” and she then disappeared into a locked room. I was standing there, frozen, looking at the audience in front of me who were curiously waiting to see what happens next. I was thinking that she might not return. After a few seconds, she opened the door behind me and pulled me silently into her room. My heart was palpitating with excitement!
We were inside Hecate’s apothecary. The room is filled with dried herbs, soils and seeds for making potions. There are jars and ropes on the ceiling twisted into pentagrams. Dried flower stems hang from the ceiling and there was an aroma of flowery scents. On the desk is a collection of combs, some containing human hair. Hecate has taken these from people’s homes to use in her magic spells.
She looked at me and removed my mask. This was uncharted territory — we were not supposed to talk or remove our masks. What should I do? I looked back at her and explored the contours of her face with my gaze. What would I do if this wasn’t a performance? Where are the boundaries between the actors and the audience, between the real and the imaginary?
We must have been looking at each for 5 minutes or so, trying to explore this encounter intensely with our senses but without language. She smoothed my hair and pity smiled. She sought a vile, opened the bottle, tipped my head back, and poured the liquid into my mouth. It was watery and salty. What was that?
She grabbed my hand and took me in a hidden pitch-black room inside the apothecary. It was like a maze, designed to disorient you and make you feel vulnerable and groundless at the mercy of the performer. She started narrating a story and as the story grew darker, she was walking me backwards, through a pair of heavy curtains.
I could barely see anything but I could hear her voice telling me about a boy, a boy who got lost in the woods. The story and her voice were getting louder and louder and were accompanied by a tense and noisy soundscape. It was hard to focus on the story with all this sensory overload.
As she was spinning me around and telling me the story, she quickly pinned me against a prickly wall. It was covered with branches, and leaves, all intertwined. She forced my hands into it. The interaction was violent and panicky. The volume of her voice was rising with the screams and cries of a little boy — it was so dark, I could only feel fear and confusion!
All of a sudden everything stopped.
All I could feel was her chest rising with her breath and the warmth of her body against mine. A few moments passed — what an ingenious alternating interplay of sensuality, mystery and violence, I thought to myself. Everything was quiet. She looked at me dead in the eye and whispered in my ear “Find my ring! I know you know where it is!”
With that, she took my hand and whipped my body away from the wall forcefully, put my mask on my face and pushed me through an open door (where did this come from?) and slammed the door shut behind me.
Wow — I love this performance!
For the next hour, I kept walking around, following the performers into different acts. I thought I’d look for the golden ring, but then I’d lose all the action. But I was definitely more attuned to cues and signals for hidden rings.
Later, I found myself at the Replica bar. I see Hecate again! She invited Agnes to sit down (some fans believe Agnes represents the equivalent of one of the siblings from King Duncan’s sons). Hecate has drinks with her before making her put on lipstick and unbutton her blouse. Hecate was humiliating Agnes with her dominant femininity! She shows her the locket that she is wearing and Agnes reaches for it while crying hysterically. Hecate then stops Agnes and collects a few of her tears in a small vile before leaving. This was the vile she made me drink during our 1:1. I had drunk Agne’s tears!
Eventually, I wandered into the scene in which the witches prophesied that no man or woman born would ever harm Macbeth. This is the infamous ‘rave scene’. The witches are stripped naked under a pulsing strobe light and dancing orgiastically the prophecy to Macbeth to a frenzied soundtrack of rave music, blood and smell of chocolate (?). The scene is absolutely grotesque, sexually violent and disorienting. Hecate in a red gown watched nearby as she oiled her lips with lipstick. When the strobe lights were exchanged for the murky hotel lighting once again, the witches bowed before Hecate and left.
Two hours into the performance I find myself at the Replica bar again. I see Hecate, seating at her usual table. On the table, there is a silver tray with a locked cover. She pulls out a key from the chain around her neck and unlocks the lid. She reveals what looks like a plate of raw meat and starts to demonically eat her meal. The bar is dark except for a spotlight shining on her as she cuts the pieces with her knife, and proceeds to eat the flesh in a deliberate fashion.
She sees me and locks her eyes on me. Did she recognise me? It’s me and about 20 people observing the scene. I approach her table, magnetised by this raw act. We stare at each other for what it must have been ~9 minutes. It was absolutely meditative for me. Her face was changing expressions as if she was trying to match the mood that was hidden under my white mask or provoke me. I kept standing there completely absorbed into this chameleonic interaction, focused on this unique moment of connectedness.
As she finishes, she starts to chew on something solid. She moves it about in her mouth, spits out a gold ring and gives it to me! How did that happen? (only at the end of the play when I removed my mask, I realised that during our 1:1 Hecate had changed my mask with another one that had two red kisses. That’s how she recognised me at the bar and gave me the ring!)
Hecate then rised from her seat and came towards me. As we were holding hands, she gets on the stage and performs an eerie lip-sync of “Is That All There Is?” while holding my hand and gazing over me and the rest of the audience.
I was part of her story and she was part of my story. Was it the actress, Hecate or the dark corners of myself that I reached out to during our brief encounters? As master Grotowski would say “It is not theatre that is indispensable, but something quite different. To cross the frontiers between you and me.”