The Situation in Brief: In from New York, and currently ongoing in Shanghai, is UK theater company Punchdrunk’s award-wining Sleep No More, an “interactive theater” staging of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. They’re presenting two blocks of performances, from December 14 to January 21 — that block is entirely sold out already — and February 17 to March 26. Tickets for February are about gone. Tickets for March are going fast. Yes, people are buying 600rmb tickets right now for a show that is happening in March 2017. You better get on it. Tickets available right here.
I arrived at the theater at 7:05pm on Wednesday night — a square, squat five-story office building converted for the performance into the “McKinnon Hotel”. The line stretched back about 100 meters along the entire side of the building, 3 to 4 people wide, out almost on to Beijing Xi Lu. It was like a rock concert. 300 people easily. Maybe 400 people. The line started inching forward like an old steam engine chugging out of the station. They were letting in just 4 or 5 people at a time. Every 5 to 7 minutes.
“Holy fucking shit,” I thought to myself. “This had better be really good.”
Holy fucking shit. This thing is really, really good.
It sounds insane. It is insane.
A massive production of “interactive theater” based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Sleep No More is staged over five floors of set and runs for three hours without intermission. The entirely dialogue-free piece incorporates modern dance and mime with intricate, cinematic-quality installation stage design, a huge sound system, and laser and strobe lighting. The production is staged to a masked audience, about 400 people deep, who are free to wander the five floors according to their own design, encountering random scenes on the fly and / or chasing — literally, sprinting — after 30 actors as they fly up and down the stairs. The piece is an interpretive modern dance telling of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Macbeth set in a 1930s-era dilapidated hotel called the "McKittrick Hotel”. Spread out over the five floors, the narrative is three hour-long intertwining arcs that are occurring simultaneously, with key scenes from Shakespeare’s tragedy serving as linchpins to the progression, eventually culminating in… well, you know how Shakespeare’s plays tend to end.
If you want to go in with no preconceptions, stop reading here. Mild spoilers to follow.
I know! I know! I know what you’re thinking.
Sleep No More offers you:
-all the heart-pounding action of waiting in line!
-the roller-coaster thrill ride experience of interpretive dance and mime!
-all set against the relentless, frenetic, edge-of-your-seat enterprise of Shakespearean drama!
Man, it’s incredible.
It’s the most metal production of Macbeth ever. So metal. It’s hard to wrap your head around. Don’t even really know how to approach it. I’ll just start spitting things out. The set design throughout the five-story building is astounding. It’s like a real-life Resident Evil video game tableau with cemeteries, sanatariums, dingy hotel rooms, apartments, and drawing rooms, infirmaries, libraries, taxidermy shops, and a ballroom. The level of detail is jaw-dropping. The rooms abound in abandoned letters and books, antiques and toys, furniture, bric-a-brac and miscellany, like a Satanic garage sale. Over everything looms this heavy haze and dust, pierced with strobes and lasers illuminating the shadows and dark corners. The soundtrack is broken jazz and Alfred Hitchcock recordings that crescendo and abate in volume and intensity throughout the show. You wander the endless maze-like rooms and corridors in the throng of this undulating mass of a masked audience, yourself in your own Eyes Wide Shut-esque mask, encountering these random scenes of love, hate, misery, violence, affection, happiness, and despair enacted wordlessly through intense physical vignettes by the cast.
They promise “intense psychological situations”. They provide.
A central concern for theater, especially post-modern theater, is the audience role in a performance. Specifically, how the dynamic of actor-to-audience affects the presentation and consumption of a piece. In the artifice of “promenade theatre” the audience is in the show. You can touch the sets — pick up the letters and read them, run your hands on the stuffed alligator in the taxidermy set, rest your back against the padded wall in the insane asylum, pick up the dirt from the cemetery and put it in your pocket. With no stage — or, rather, when everything is the stage — you can forge direct relationships with the performing actors. They lock your gaze directly. They try to. At one point, I felt a light hand on my shoulder from behind me. It was one of the actors trying to race by to the next scene. He was naked except for a pair of underwear, covered in blood and water. Wearing a giant, dripping bull’s head prop from his shoulder’s up.
I could go on for another thousand words or so. It’s a really profound thing. It’s like being in a movie. It’s like being in real life except you’re in this heavily contrived cracked-out fantasy world. You’re in the midst of all the action, almost physically involved, yet anonymous and distant because of the mask. You’re part of this massive crowd of evil voyeurs, with your own individuality washed out and replaced with a crowd's mentality, but at the same time experiencing a unique construction of narrative events through your own decision making -- through the rooms and corridors you choose to see.
But yeah. Go see it. Shit’s nuts.
A Few Tips Before You Go
-Wear comfortable shoes. It really is walking up and down 5 flights of stairs for three hours straight. It’s a gauntlet. It’s taxing. It’s exhausting. There are places to sit, yes, (in the actual set of course) but expect a very physical evening.
-Brush up on Macbeth, the source material for the content. Even just the broad strokes Wikipedia version. When you recognize famous characters and bits from that play, it’s like a really self-satisfying eureka moment.
-Prepare for lines. It’s a massive production intended for a giant audience. There are places where it bottle-necks. Particularly in the coatcheck out. Bring your patience A-game.
-Bring extra money for a cocktail. They start and end you off in a recreated 1930s jazz bar to set the mood. For real. It’s like the JZ Club. I got an Old Fashioned for 85rmb — definitely not 1930s prices. You might not need that drink before the show but you’ll definitely need it after.
-Note: The line in forms around 7pm. And then they start letting people in. If you get there after 8pm, they won’t let you in and your SOL.
Tickets to Sleep No More right here.