Have you ever gone to see a play, perhaps a movie, or even visited an art museum, and walked out thinking, “What the hell was that?”
I had that feeling last Tuesday on the west side of New York City after experiencing the “immersive theatre experience” called Sleep No More, which has been selling out every night, non-stop, for eight years. It’s loosely based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with elements of some Hitchcock films like Rebecca and Vertigo. The whole performance is set in 1929, and it’s not a play in the strictest sense—there’s no dialogue, no seating, not even a stage.
Sleep No More takes place on six floors of a giant warehouse, and the actors are more accurately described as dancers. There’s very, very little information given to the patrons, who are simply handed a mask and told that “fortune favors the bold” before they’re dumped out into the warehouse, which is immaculately prepared. Within the structure, you’ll find a jazz club, a hotel, two apartments, a sanitarium, a forest, a graveyard, a city street with multiple shops, a ballroom, and much, much more, all of which are presented in a perfect, Hitchcock-style milieu.
The mask, styled like one you’d see at a masquerade ball, is intended to provide a certain level of anonymity to the visitors, who are allowed to rummage through drawers, open envelopes, read books, dump suitcases out on the floor, and generally act like they own the place. They can also get disturbingly close to the actors, some of whom are in various states of dress—everything from formalwear to complete nudity happens within the warehouse, and it all feels a bit voyeuristic at times.
Unless you know Macbeth incredibly well (and even if you do), it’s challenging to figure out what’s actually happening at any given time. Patrons are released into the warehouse at intervals of 15 minutes, and as such, the first scene you experience might be chronologically out of order. Each scene is repeated three times throughout the course of the evening, and attendees are encouraged to follow the character of their choosing around the massive structure.
I opted not to shuffle along with the hordes, and chose to simply explore on my own terms instead. As such, any scenes I saw were disjointed and difficult to place into context, even when accompanied by the swelling music and film noir-style soundtrack. For example, I just happened to wander into what would be, if I were seeing a strict interpretation of Macbeth, the second prophecy, but in Sleep No More, is more of an orgiastic rave, complete with strobe lights, house music, and full nudity. I walked through the Sanitarium to find a woman, probably Lady Macbeth, washing the blood off of her body in the tub, crying quietly.
I saw a dwarf portraying a nurse, wondering aimlessly through the forest. I saw what appeared to be a formal ball which quickly devolved into a fight between a bald witch and Macduff (at least I think it was Macduff). I read ten pages of a taxidermist’s field guide, only to find a diary entry on the eleventh page which painstakingly outlined the taxidermist’s desire to skin a beautiful woman that he passed in the street that day.
Finally, I observed a banquet executed in beautiful slow motion, with Banquo arriving last as a bloody spectre. After that scene, as I was ushered out of the experience, I realized that I had spend nearly three hours in the warehouse, but that I hadn’t looked at my phone or my watch once during the whole time. I hadn’t heard a human voice the whole time.
As I exited, there was a young man waving a program, shouting things like, “Don’t know much about Shakespeare? Confused by the strange nurse wandering around? Buy the program and learn about what you just saw!” And there was no shortage of people lining up to grab the book from his hands.
It’s an interesting concept, because it almost forces the customer to come back a second, or even third time, to really grasp what they’ve seen. There are entire online communities consisting of “superfans” who’ve been to see Sleep over a hundred times and claim to have gotten a different experience each time. There are various “one-on-ones” where characters will pull a single patron into a small room and deliver a monologue directly to him in an intimate setting (I didn’t get so lucky).
It also allows people to explore a voyeuristic side of themselves that they may not be able to express freely in normal society. It’s an odd feeling, to stand so close to the actors, literally moving out of their way or having them push you out of the way on occasion. As I stood in that Sanitarium, feeling a bit uncomfortable watching a woman bathe herself, she suddenly “broke the fourth wall” and reached out to a masked patron to help her facilitate her egress from the tub. As she dried herself and wrapped herself gingerly in a threadbare towel, she exited the room. Immediately, thirty members of the audience silently followed her to her next scene. It’s just flat out weird, but also strangely captivating.
So yes, I did walk out thinking, “What the hell was that?” But I also thought, “Whatever it was, I’d do it again.” Tickets aren’t cheap, starting at $100 apiece. But if you’re looking for a completely unique evening that’s unlike anything you’ll see on Broadway, Sleep No More is worth it.