Sleep No More: Macbeth unlike you’ve ever seen

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There are three rules:

1) Leave your mask on at all times.
2) No speaking.
3) Do not hold hands.

The elevator man stops the lift.  “Sometimes the hotel is better explored alone.”  He reaches for a girl who begins to shriek and beg, “no, no no – please, no!”  The elevator door shuts on her, separating her from her friends.

“There are five floors in the hotel,” the elevator man continues as the lift rises, coming to its final stop.  “Enjoy your stay.”

The elevator doors open.  Jazz music invites the crowd to the left, but I immediately veer to the right, remembering the advice of friends, “Don’t be afraid to be by yourself.  Wear comfortable shoes and explore every floor of the hotel.”

I find myself in a graveyard of sorts.  There are ruined walls creating a maze and statues of Madonnas – or angels?  I can’t tell in the dimmed light.  I see windows and through the windows a bath.  I enter the bathroom.  Letters are littered around the bath and the water is murky.  It’s as though a corpse has been rotting in it.

Enter Lady Macbeth.  She immediately strips her clothes off and gets into the murky water.  Is she already mad?  Is this “out, damn spot?”

I’m not sure.

This is Sleep No More, the interactive Macbeth set against Film Noir at the McKittrick Hotel in New York City.  It’s hauntingly mesmerizing.  This three-hour journey is already unlike any other theatrical experience I’ve ever encountered.

There are no seats.  We are roaming around a warehouse made to look like a 1940s hotel.  We are free to be anywhere in the space and when we aren’t supposed to be somewhere – like the banquet table, yes, I tried this – a person in a black mask puts their hand up, uttering nothing and not even pointing me in a different direction.  We are left to wander.  We are left to explore.  We see actors interacting with one another.  We follow them through hidden passages.  From a bedroom through a wardrobe into an office.  We are flies on the wall and, like flies are prone to do, we can move anywhere – directly into the actors’ faces or into the far reaching corners of the hotel lobby.

Nicholas Bruder as Macbeth and Sophie Bortolussi as Lady Macbeth with audience member © Yaniv Schulman.

The play runs through its cycle repeatedly over the course of three hours.  Audience members are allowed to enter the space over the course of the first hour.  What I love about this is that already, there is no concrete narrative. There is no set structure or arc to follow.

In a way, we are left to our own devices to create the story of Macbeth – or any other tragedy we wish really.  I think even if a person isn’t familiar with Macbeth, they can’t help but create their own piece of theater in their head.  If I miss a scene in one cycle of the play, I might catch it in the next cycle.

For instance, in the first cycle of the play, I see Macbeth murder Duncan in his sleep.  But it’s not until later when we’re in the second cycle of the play that I see Macbeth find Lady Macbeth after the murder and try to wash the blood off his hands (murky bath water).

I catch a party scene in both cycles of the play, but I see it from different points of view.  In the first cycle’s party, I see jealous glances between Lady Macduff and Macduff.  In the second cycle’s party, I’m on the other side of the room and I catch a knowing exchange between the Macbeths, premeditating Duncan’s murder.

Nicholas Bruder and Sophie Bortolussi with audience members © Robin Roemer Photography.

This is all, of course, as I see it and someone standing next to me would see it completely differently because they would be roaming the hotel at their own pace, creating their own narrative, visiting different rooms than me and witnessing different characters’ stories.

It’s really a lot to take in.  The set piece that makes up the hotel itself is completely hands on to the point that I stumble into a candy store and masked audience members are sampling the lemon drops and root beer barrels.  They offer me a barrel and I take it.  Even without the action of the actors, the setting is engrossing.  It’s like a maze meets a haunted house.

We follow the characters closely.  One audience member follows so closely that they go right into another room with the character and the character locks the door after him (I check the knob myself).  No one else knows what goes on behind these doors and these experiences are meant to create a “one on one” moment between the audience member and the character.  I didn’t experience this first hand, but rumors go so far as to describe the removal of masks and make out sessions.

I remember what my friends advised me, “Don’t be afraid to be by yourself.”

I make a point to leave the group and I find myself tucked away in a room full of mirrors.  It’s dark except for dim candle light coming from beneath me.  I stare into the mirror at myself in my neutral mask.  A mask that matches every other mask roaming the hotel.  And as I stare, I start to feel completely mad.  I am Lady Macbeth.  I am the player.

And that’s when the journey translates even further than any other theatrical experience.  It’s the sense that we are in the audience watching a play and yet, we too, are the play.  A masked figure walks in on me staring at myself, Lady Macbeth, in the mirror and I feel embarrassed.  He can’t see my face, but I know I’ve been caught in my madness.  And in a sense, I, too, am creating the show.

As we’re ushered out of the hotel – the three hours have flown – I’m left concluding that the piece worked, but I’m not sure why… there wasn’t one narrative or one arc.  But then I realize that it’s because it’s our own narrative that we discover and it’s because it’s our own play that we are in that the piece really does create the most satisfying story we could seek.

Bookings for the McKittrick Hotel click here.

Feature photo: © Yaniv Schulman.