On Wednesday night, I made my way to West 27th Street to be a guest at the fictional McKittrick Hotel, home to Sleep No More, the immersive, site-specific experience from British theater company Punchdrunk. To call this superb production a voyeuristic undertaking is not entirely accurate. Though the format of the performance allows for the audience to wander freely throughout the five stories of the hotel (which is actually three warehouses) and get as close as they dare to the characters that portray scenes from Macbeth, Sleep No More is more than an exercise in voyeurism, which would be giving the audience all of the credit. Rather, it’s a seduction. The McKittrick and everything inside – the performers, detailed set design, music, and choreography – sucks you into its mysterious, freakish world, and it’s impossible to resist. Fortunately, there are no trespassers, only guests, at this hotel. The characters want to share their harrowing tale with you, so you’d be foolish not to watch closely.
After the other guests and I checked our belongings and walked through a dark, curtained hallway, we arrived in a 1930s bar with friendly hosts and pleasant music. Packed into an elevator, we were instructed to put on carnival-like masks and follow the hotel’s two rules: do not speak and do not remove your mask at any time. I broke the latter rule (or rather, a character broke it for me), but more on that later.
Released to explore the hotel’s five floors on our own, there was an immediate sense of urgency to find the action. The subtlest noise or movement led to a frenzy of running as masked audience members chased whatever it was they saw or heard up and down stairs or through a narrow corridor. Following the pack was exciting, but staying behind was equally rewarding – especially by taking in the brilliant set design by Felix Barrett, Livi Vaughan, and Beatrice Minns. Even in dim lighting, the detail in every room (supposedly there are more than 100) was remarkable. Hand-written letters, taxidermy, locks of hair, diaries filled with dark secrets, jars of sweets (which some people chose to eat), and creepy dolls were just some of the items throughout the hotel. Each room even has a distinct smell. Some were musty, others sweet and floral.
Encounters with the performers were unpredictable. In bedrooms, a ballroom, on a pool table, in a dining room, or in a closet (all with eerie, fitting sound designs by Stephen Dobbie), characters including the Macbeths, Macduff and his pregnant wife, servants, and witches undressed, muttered maniacally to nobody in particular, lunged at each other in battle, or danced wildly under strobe lights (with smart, contact improvisation-inspired choreography by Maxine Doyle). They were aggressive, distraught, fragile, and sensual. Witnessing their mostly wordless stories unfold in fragments was dream-like: the details were hazy, and I felt a bit out of place, but still desperate to know what happens next.
Regarding the second rule, the one that I broke – do not remove your mask at any time – I had every intention of following it. In fact, wearing a mask only heightened the voyeuristic pleasure of the experience (“We can see you, but you can’t see us!”) But while wandering through a wide hallway, a slightly ragged, melancholy gentleman in a vest grabbed me by the wrist, pulled me into a room with him, and bolted the door. My initial fear wore off as I learned – without any words exchanged – a bit more about this man, who owned a shop with precious stones and many curious potions. Aside from sharing that he removed my mask and thus broke the McKittrick’s rules, I won’t reveal the details. But I found myself gravitating back to him later in the performance to learn more about his story and heartbreak.
In spite of the incessant thrill of chasing characters and watching bizarre events unfold in the most unusual of places, there were moments of frustration, like when I got lost in a maze of a forest with only a few other masked people around (note: if you have a poor sense of direction, as I do, you’ll most likely end up lost several times throughout the performance). Punchdrunk empowers audiences by giving them almost total freedom, but the downside of choosing your own path in the McKittrick is that you’re on your own. If you can’t find your way, or become bored by your surroundings, nobody is there to guide you elsewhere.
Sharing how my experience concluded at the McKittrick would spoil the fun (or rather, the shock) for anyone planning to see Sleep No More, but suffice it to say that I was entirely disoriented after leaving the 1930s and returning to West 27th Street in present day. What happened in the hotel felt worlds away, and as with any eventful, puzzling dream, I’m still trying to put the pieces together.
Sleep No More continues through November 5th at the McKittrick Hotel, 530 West 27th Street in Manhattan.