Punchdrunk Theatre Company’s American debut, Sleep No More, is a constructed reality that affects every part of your body; a sensual experience that excites and unnerves like a foreboding shiver running down your spine. It’s an interactive performance that reaches its most subtle and stirring potential, leaving the audience to alternate between chasing actors down darkened hallways, following them into their despair and madness, and freezing in horror when they turn their hollow eyes upon you.
Audience members are admitted into The Old Lincoln School one by one, pointed through a curtain and left in a pitch-black maze. The pressing darkness breaks at each turn by flickering lights. A series of turns brings you to another curtain where a flapper at Manderlay Bar greets you. You must then wait your turn to be called into the performance hidden behind one final curtain.
Once inside, this nuanced sensory experience will make you feel like you’re watching a movie from within the action, trespassing on private moments, transfixed, breathless, and deeply invested in the world spiraling around you. The other 300 audience members who wander the grounds become part of the experience. Silent and faceless, we’re hidden behind shocking white masks that reduce us to a pair of wide eyes that pierce into the Macbeths, literalizing the crushing gaze of judgment that eats away at this murderous couple.
Beams of light isolate objects and actors in otherwise dimly lit rooms. The low sinister drone of music, more David Lynch than Alfred Hitchcock, creeps by and the sudden deafening crunch of the unseen gravel beneath your feet joins the accompanying soundtrack of echoing footsteps, sharp intakes of breath, and the high penetrating cackle of a witch streaking down the hallway.
At times, the sensual nature of Sleep No More almost overwhelms. The first scene takes you to a long room packed with pungent Christmas trees and dry ice, dark save for a murky blue light that cuts across a twisting and writhing woman dancing alone in the center of the floor. Hecate, played by Careena Melia, dances in frightening and beautiful motion, interpreting the low guttural music that fills the room. The bass is so loud that it shakes the floor and your insides, leaving you and your senses unsteady and dazed.
The drive to chase after the actors is split with the desire to examine the amazing art installations that cover this abandoned school building. We experience the chill of déjà vu as we enter a room almost identical another, but twisted slightly and corrupted by the horrors seen in the banquet hall and in Duncan’s bedroom. We stumble upon a dead bird, a set of wrapped boxes in a perambulator abandoned in the hallway, a telephone illuminated from above, a line of bathtubs, uniform except for the tint of red staining the water.
The acting and dancing are exuberant and would have tended towards being over the top if it weren’t for the fact that their faces and bodies tell the whole story, assisted by sound and set design, but never by dialogue. The performers’ silence amplifies the moments when they sign, groan or cry out, and is instrumental to the atmosphere. This is the second production in the American Repertory Theater’s Shakespeare Exploded! Festival, and one of the things this company seems to be expelling from of their adaptations is every syllable of Shakespeare’s language. From the 70’s disco lyrics and banter that voice the Midsummer Night’s antics in ART’s previous production of The Donkey Show, to the suspenseful tendrils of music that narrate Macbeth’s murder of sleep, the total exclusion of the Bard’s words seems excessive. The discovered “adventure theater” of Sleep No More utilizes silence to enhance suspense and could not support full dialogue as more than half of the audience would miss most of the lines. However, a solitary line or two uttered in each scene, perhaps whispered and half heard by the actor’s stalking audience, could marry the genius of Shakespeare’s language with the stunning art and acting that surrounds us.
Punchdrunk Theater Company and the American Repertory Theater have successfully yanked the audience into an intimate acquaintance with the human weaknesses that wreck havoc in Macbeth. Robert McNeill as Macduff and Hector Harkness as Malcolm terrify and enthrall audience members who witness the suspicions cast after Duncan’s murder. In a captivating performance, McNeill and Harkness fire accusations with a swinging light that they thrust at one other in a deadly arch of violence, rage and grief. Similarly electric and dangerous is the fight between Geir Hytten (Macbeth) and Vinicius Salles (Banquo). Their movements are a tight, grasping dance—a physical poetry that shows their emotional connection as friend murders friend. We know that no one is innocent and no one will be spared. The sense of doom is all-encompassing and leaves little room for anything else.
Even while capturing the essence of Malcolm’s role as a Christ figure—the son whose restoration to the throne will right the Macbeths’ corruption of time and restore the line of Kings—it is a sinister deity we perceive at this last supper. Salvation has been inverted; sin and debauchery overpower us all when even Malcolm is drawn into the hellish orgy at Macbeth’s banquet. If there were rooms or characters or even moments that offered access to a lighter world for a spell, would it be more jarring to watch Lady Macbeth (Sarah Dowling), as her guilt-ridden, gnarled blood-stained hands lead her to contortions of self-revulsion? But perhaps the dread is what keeps us captivated and rooted to the spot.
Sleep No More will heighten your senses and leave your mind reeling, replaying moments of the night. The paths you chose to go down and the doors you open along the way will follow you home, and the ones you left untouched will haunt you. Every audience member’s experience is unique and infused with a sense of freedom and privileged anonymity, and the illicit intrusion into the minds of the characters is thrilling.
Chasing ghosts through the night is an exhilarating and tiring experience. Wear sneakers, check your coat, and be prepared to dive into your dread to see what you can discover. Perhaps you, too, will choose to chase Macbeth until the last moment of the night, cower under his bloody glare, and consequently endure being accosted by the ghost of Banquo. Before releasing me into the outside world, Banquo pressed a keepsake into my hand to keep the shivers going. A small charm—a heart with a knife plunging through it on a thin blood-red thread. Not for the faint of heart or mind, Sleep No More will crawl under your skin and stay there.
Sleep No More runs October 8, 2009 – January 3, 2010 at the Old Lincoln School, 194 Boylston Street (RT 9), Brookline, MA 02445. Information can be found at http://www.americanrepertorytheater.org/.