Saturday, 15 October 2011

Sleep No More in NYC

Before I talk about Sleep No More, the Macbeth-based show by Punch Drunk that is currently taking New York by storm, a caveat. I know I am not the target audience for this production. I am not a big fan of non-linear theatre; most ‘immersive’ theatre makes me annoyed (I’m the one paying, and you still want me to do the work?); I don’t particularly enjoy or understand dance-based performance; and I tend to react with borderline militancy to anything that requires me to check in my sense of humour at the door for the sake of Art. So I get, now, that this isn’t the show for me. You might love it – plenty of people, including those I know and whose opinion I respect – did love it. It’s a total sell out – the run has been extended a few times already – and a couple of nights before we went, we met people who enjoyed it so much they were planning to go back. So, if you go with an open mind and comfortable shoes, you might well truly get it. It’s a show that aims to give everyone a unique experience. This is just mine.

The McKittrick hotel is located in a fairly unlovely part of town that seems to consist mainly of building sites – we eventually find it, having wandered around looking for somewhere to have a drink, and realising how grateful we are that we decided to plump for the early show: I really wouldn’t want to be in this neighbourhood in the early hours. We booked a time slot for 7.30 so join the queue outside the door – I know, I hate queuing, but this is an Experience, right, so I am willing to put up with it for now.

Inside, however, I am quickly annoyed by the lack of organisation. If you’re insisting people check their bags in, why not tell them that? Instead I sail past the cloakroom queue, only to be sent back there when I try to get past the ticket booth, meaning I have to go back to the cloakroom (though, I notice, they are keen to tell you to keep your wallets out, for the bar). Then I enter a dimly lit bar where a waitress approaches to sell me a glass of champagne – of course I say yes, only to be told seconds later that my party is being called into the hotel and we can’t take drinks in. So why didn’t you tell me that when I shelled out for a drink that my friend and I are now having to neck down at choking speed? It’s not a good sign when you feel hustled before you even get through the door.

For reasons beyond me, my party has been split up, so Shiv and I go first. We are led through pitch darkness to a lift, where our hosts speak in deliberate, mysterious tones, all the better to reinforce our Experience. This is, we are left in no doubt, Serious Art. We are given white masks that we must wear and told that we can’t speak, we can’t ask the black-masked ushers directions, but if it all gets too scary, we can seek solace in the bar. With that we are disgorged into the body of the hotel, ready to be thrilled and terrified.

Or... not. In fairness, whoever has done the decorating has done a magnificent job. Each room is a masterclass in spooky: sometimes we’re in a hotel, sometimes an abandoned mental hospital, a speakeasy bar, a churchyard, or a forest. Having silent, masked figures wandering in the semi-darkness to the accompaniment of loud, dramatic music is amazingly effective, giving the whole thing a surreal and unsettling aspect.

So I wander. And... I wander. Then I wander a bit more. By this stage, I’m getting slightly bored of the spookiness – there are only so many times you can think, my, this set is impressive before it starts to pall, and the mask is making my nose sweat and my make up run. I am reminded of a recent Doctor Who episode where they were trapped in a haunted hotel whose corridors were roamed by a vengeful spirit, but I find myself actively wishing that I’d be accosted by a ghost. Instead, I get a slightly distracted looking nurse, who strides past me, frowning, and vanishes into one of the rooms, where she stands about still looking slightly distracted and frowning, but not doing much else.

Um, OK. I’m suddenly reminded of the only un-ecstatic review I have read of Sleep No More, when someone said that they always felt they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, that they always arrived just as the interesting stuff was ending. As an example of the modern ailment FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) Sleep No More couldn’t be bettered: something has to be happening somewhere, right? Just not to me. I’m meandering around like an extra from a Kubrick film who arrived too late for the orgy. Stumbling around in the dark, lost without direction and convinced that everyone else is having more fun than you are – well, that’s a metaphor for life if ever I’ve seen one.

Eventually, I find someone who is recognisably part of the show: Lady Macbeth hoves into view, rubbing her hands and muttering. I can’t tell if she’s actually reciting lines from the play – her voice is pretty much drowned out by the music – and she is briefly accosted in a passionate embrace by her husband before the pair of them dash off to be dramatic elsewhere, prompting a silent stampede as white-masked observers race after them. Clearly the audience divides neatly into two – those who follow a particular character to see what they will do next, and those who walk around hoping to stumble on something interesting. I choose the latter path because frankly the former scares me: there’s a frantic and almost aggressive nature to their pursuit, and I don’t like the sensation of being a white-faced sheep following the herd. (One of my companions later tells me she tried the former approach for a while, and it involved a lot of running up and down stairs, so I’m quite pleased I stuck with my plan).

So, the show has clearly started: admittedly watching a mad woman mumble, rub her hands and get a bit of a snog isn’t up there with Great Dramatic Moments I Have Experienced, but at least it’s confirmation the whole thing isn’t just a giant joke where people pay to walk around an empty hotel and are all too scared to admit they saw nothing. So I take off on my wandering again. And I wander some more. And a bit more. By now I’m really bored. I recognise as a personal failing that I’m the kind of woman who can’t spend more than 45 minutes in a museum without heading for the gift shop, but if the combined treasures of the British Empire can’t hold my attention for a full hour, then a nice bit of set dressing has no hope.

I do, eventually, find some more action. A tableau of the banquet scene played out in slow motion before me: it’s skilful, but with the action slowed to glacial it’s stripped of the urgency and power that makes the scene. Birnam Wood on the move is more effective, a balletic dance that is genuinely impressive. I see several Macbeths (or at least I assume they are Macbeths), all sitting around looking so tortured that I feel like I’m in the waiting room at an open audition for Hamlet. The only scene that really moves me is one between the Macbeths, a dance of power and seduction and lust that beautifully captures their relationship (and major props to the actress – it takes some guts to strip off when the audience is within touching distance). But the brilliance of this just frustrates me – why am I not seeing this show, instead of having to schlep round a dark hotel hoping for glimpses of interest?

It’s telling that afterwards both Shiv and I said the production had made us desperate to see Macbeth again, as we both came out feeling frustrated. We missed the actual Shakespeare. I had the same problem when I saw the Song of a Goat production of Macbeth: strip away the language, and you strip away much of the beauty. You could of course argue that this is merely a non-verbal translation of the play – and I wager dance enthusiasts would come away beaming – but I missed the words.

The non-linear nature of the play also fostered a profound sense of disconnection. Not having been given time to engage with the characters - to get to know them and their motivations and their desires - their actions and their suffering become meaningless. You can marvel at the performer’s physical prowess (and the performers were all very skilful) but you can’t care about their fate. These are not extracts of Macbeth, they are ghosts – and like ghosts, they cannot touch you. For me, this was the fatal blow: I simply didn’t care. I have seen performances of Macbeth where the death of Macduff’s family drew gasps of horror: here I saw a pregnant and distressed Lady Macduff walk by me, thought, ‘mm, that won’t end well’ and let her go on her way.

Clearly, I was not having the expected Experience. This became abundantly obvious when I sidled up to one of the black-masked ushers who, plainly alarmed at being spoken to, jumped a foot in the air when I asked where the bar was. At first she tried not to answer – I suspect they are only there to stop people falling over the furniture – but relented when she realised I was a woman in desperate need of a drink. “It’s not open till 8.30” she eventually hissed. “You mean I’ve only been in here an hour?” I wailed. Obviously I really was in a Doctor Who episode, because someone was messing with the properties of time.

Defeated, I found a handy chaise longue and slumped down in the hope that one of my party – well, Shiv, if I’m honest, because I knew his reaction would be similar to mine – would stroll past. I found myself being watched warily by another black-masked usher, no doubt wondering why I was slouched in near catatonic boredom while around me white-masked terriers were examining the scenery with an interest bordering on the forensic (my friend L later posits that these were plants meant to get us to be more interactive and I think that’s a probability: who else would be that interested in props?) I started to regret that I wasn’t wearing one of my more dramatic dresses: if I was, I would have been tempted to ditch the mask and pretend I was part of the show. Seeing how long I could have gotten away with that without being rumbled would have at least provided something in the way of entertainment.

After a suitable eternity, convinced it had to be 8.30, I made my way to the bar, and the evening improved immensely – especially when Shiv wandered in moments later, having spent the last 40 minutes doing much the same as I was. (I wasn’t surprised by this: we are king and queen of the bailers. When we lived in the same city, we used to joke we’d seen the first act of every play in London). The bar was a delight: a jazz trio, a throaty voiced torch singer, a sense of decadence and plenty of champagne – why hadn’t we just spent the time in here?

Happily my other friends had a much better experience: in fact, they are in there so long that Shiv is convinced they have already left and are sitting in a bar across the road wondering where the hell we are: he simply can’t believe that they can find enough to keep them busy. L scolds me lightly afterwards that I didn’t give the show a chance (and she at least got some male nudity out of the evening, which proves there is something to be said for perseverance) but while she has a point, I know myself well enough to know that if you’ve lost me, you’ve lost me. If I’m bored and irritated after 45 minutes, you’re not winning me back, so we’re both better off if I leave so that my bad mood doesn’t spoil it for anyone else.

So would I say avoid it? I don’t think I would: clearly, plenty of people loved the show, and one of them might be you. For me, though, I felt cheated: I know all that decorating doesn’t come cheap, but I felt like 75 bucks was an awful lot of money to see not an awful lot. I would have been far happier to see an actual production of Macbeth, perhaps with one floor of the hotel as backdrop. As it was, I felt like I’d just been given a very expensive tour of a slightly haunted house.

Did we miss the orgy?