Sleep No More (theater production)

Sleep No More

I show my ticket, a blue six of spades, and I am dropped off on the top floor. (I think it’s the top floor. I keep losing track.) The audience members all wear white masks and are bound to silence. There is definitely a forest on this floor, and a couple on the dance floor dancing a polka. Aha! They must be the Macbeths! They stop dancing and embrace like bears, then take off in opposite directions. I have read that it’s best to follow one actor for as long as possible, so I go chasing after Lady Macbeth.

She goes to a room with a bathtub. The water is slightly murky, and the platform with the tub on it is covered with pieces of paper, letters to Lady Macbeth. I bend down to read one (They met me in the day of success…), and when I look back up, Lady Macbeth is gone.

I go downstairs, or upstairs, and find myself in a passageway with storefronts. I am exploring one of them, a sewing room, when a thin, anxious-looking man dashes in and starts rifling through his accounts book.  Suddenly he spins on his heel and gazes frantically at something on the other side of the window. He slams the door to the shop and bars it, then goes to each of the windows, peers out of them, and slams them shut too. Outside, one of the audience members rattles the door. Ignoring this, the anxious man runs into an adjacent room, anoints his palms with ash, and begins murmuring prayers under his breath.

I follow him and put a finger into the ash, to see if it feels like Ash Wednesday ash. (It does.) The thin man takes my palms and puts ashes on each of them; he clasps my hands together and begins murmuring further prayers. He rushes to a drawer and pulls out two small charms on strings. He untangles one, a golden cross, and puts it around his neck; then untangles the other, a golden half moon, and puts it on me. As I am inspecting it, he catches sight of something outside the window, and he immediately runs out of the room and locks it behind him.

Wait, am I allowed to unbar the door of the other room? My hands are covered in ashes. Won’t I get ashes on the door? I wish I could chase after possibly-Malcolm, but he’s long gone. That’s okay. I’ll wander. I unbar the door very carefully, and I am greeted by a sea of white-masked faces. They have no idea why I barred the door. I’m such a failure at following actors.

I wander to a different floor and find myself in a hospital ward. In one room is an office with case files and many books about female hysteria. There is a padded room, covered in feathers, and a room with two rows of hospital beds. One of the bedside table drawers contains a potato and a mandrake.

I slam it shut. I am unironically petrified of mandrakes.

As I am closing the drawer, I catch sight of the man who operated the elevator. He may be First Murderer. Or Banquo. Or one of the witches. I follow him, anticipating which exit he’s going to take and which direction he’s going to take. I don’t even have to run to keep up. Hooray for me! Something pivotal is going to happen and I’m going to see it because I’m the champion following person! Now I’m winning the play!

The tall man goes into a large room full of tables and instruments, and begins wiping down tables. I test the drums to see if they are real (yes), try to pick up the trumpet (attached to the piano), and tap a few piano keys to see if it’s real (no). While I’m doing this, Lady Macbeth has come in and sat down at one of the tables. She is putting in a pair of black gloves, slowly, a reverse Gilda.

Suddenly she looks up at me.

She comes down off the stage, still straightening her gloves. Someone in the audience steps on someone else’s foot, and there is a small cry of pain. Lady Macbeth tilts her head to one side – does she hear something? – then looks back at me. She steps forward, presses a kiss into my mask and, swishing her long skirt behind her, sashays out into the hall where the storefronts are.

She trails one black-gloved finger across a window. Inside, a thin, anxious man glances up. He dashes out into the passageway and locks the door to the room he was just in. Lady Macbeth smiles at him, and he dashes away down the hall to get away from her. I follow but lose him on the stairs and end up in the Macduff house. There is a room with at least twenty-five headless baby dolls dangling from the ceiling. Another room has a bed with a baby doll on it, and a mirror on the wall. Wondering whether Lady Macbeth left lipstick prints on my mask, I go over to the mirror to check.

My reflection is ghostly, barely there. As I squint to see my mask, my eye catches a blood spot on the bed. How did they do that, just when my back was turned? I spin around to see the child’s bed. No blood. But it’s there in the mirror.

The door rattles, and Lady Macduff comes running in, heavily pregnant, tearing apart the stomach of a teddy bear. She goes into the Macduff parlor, where she is joined by Macduff in a disheveled suit. Lady Macduff displays a worrying affinity for scrambling up on high shelves and suspending herself there like Spiderman; Macduff likes to haul her off of them by her ankles. It is either a dance representation of an extremely angry fight, or extremely angry sex.

After they make up, they get dressed for a ball and head downstairs for it. I lose them again in the crowd of white-masked audience members. I find myself in a cold graveyard with scores of white crosses and an empty perambulator. It is spooky. I walk into the next part of the graveyard, with crumbling stone walls and a smallish fountain. As I explore, I get a small, creepy feeling that there is someone standing behind me. I’m used to this by now because there are always audience members nearby. But when I turn, I see a lifesize stone woman. She’s pointing straight at me.

I flee. You would flee too. It is damn scary. The room I flee into is the room with the bathtub and the letters; but now the water in the bathtub is a dark, cloudy blood-red. The whole business is deeply unsettling, and when I glance back into the graveyard through the glass walls of the bathtub room, I can still see the stone woman pointing at me. Is she closer than she was before?

(don’t blink, don’t even blink)

Escaping from this, I find myself in some sort of strobe-lit bacchanal. The dancers wear dresses that are in severe danger of falling off them; or animal heads and nothing else. Back in the passageway with the storefronts, the tall man from the elevator pounds on a barred door. He slides sideways and stares into the window to the left of the door until the window’s shutters are slammed against him. Another actor appears, and the two of them engage in a ferocious wall-climbing fight that looks genuinely dangerous. I am concerned they will fall to their deaths.

Speaking of which—

You’ll know if you see it.

I should say that this isn’t even a fraction of all the things I saw. There are dozens of rooms: an apothecary, a taxidermist shop, plenty of storage rooms, an early twentieth-century living room with an elegant telephone and rolltop desk. There are bewildering scenes: a Mrs. Danvers character makes Lady Macduff beg for a milky liquid; Lady Macbeth unlocks a dinner plate, spits out a gold ring, and lip-synchs “Is That All There Is?”; the tall elevator man sews something into the ripped-open belly of a teddy bear and puts it on the bed of a dead child; a tall slim woman gets tossed about like a rag doll before peeling off her hair to reveal a completely bald head.

Teresa from Shelf Love came to Sleep No More with me and saw an entirely different batch of scenes. When we found each other again at the end of the play (play? Dance production? Immersive theater experience?), we were startled to find how little overlap there was between what she saw and what I saw. But we agreed it was magical.

31 thoughts on “Sleep No More (theater production)

  1. Oh wow. This sounds like such an amazing experience. On a semi-related note, I have major BEA envy. Not so much because of the books and all that (though this is what I tell myself from an ocean away – when actually presented with more books of course I always want them), but because so many of my favourite bloggers got to have so much fun together. I’ll keep daydreaming of the day when I can fly over and join you all 😛

    • It was amazing, and would have been more amazing still if you had come with us. I would love to have you come to New York. Next year? Next year?

  2. I wish I could have come to this now. It sounds amazing. Though I think I would have been super frightened. I had to run out the London Dungeons, I got so scared – and that was totally rubbish in comparison to the sounds of this. And I was 17 when that happened. The shame.

    • I promise you wouldn’t have been frightened, it wasn’t really frightening. It was, I don’t know, there were things that were unexpected, and the experience altogether was more just thrilling. My heart skipped a beat a few times, but there was never any reason for it at a second glance. (Apart from the stone angels, but that’s not the play’s fault, that’s Steven Moffat’s fault.)

      • As soon as you mentioned the stone lady I went “oh dear lord no!”… do you think they added her after the Who episode? Or is it just a convenient coincidence?

        (The angels are the scariest villains for me.)

    • It was cool! I was delighted when I got outside into the lobby and found the kiss had left marks on my mask, thereby rendering it totally worth keeping. I hung it up in my cubicle at work.

  3. You definitely win at actor interaction. All I got were a couple of intense stares 😦 And I hadn’t put together that you saw the bacchanal! Was that in the scene in the pool room? And when I saw Mrs Danvers with Lady Macduff, she was pushing the milk on her (in the ballroom, early on). So strange!

    It is funny that got to see how the slightly murky tub became blood-red, and you got to see the before and after. I think that’s the closest we ever came to being at the same play! (The audience-kissing bit that I saw was in the storefront room.)

    I really want an insider’s guide, but I guess if they were to do that, it wouldn’t be until after they close.

    • It was in the room with the piano and the drums. Was there a pool table in there as well? There may have been but I just didn’t see it. There were strobe lights. I saw a bunch of stuff in that room.

      Which storefront? Was it Lady Macbeth doing the kissing still, or a different actor? So intriguing. I too would love to have an insider’s guide, but I think the collective experiences of you and your college friends are going to be the closest thing I get. Collect them carefully! :p

      • The pool table was in a different room–another bar that had dirt on the floors. (And there was a second piano room that wasn’t a bar at all. That’s where I saw Lady Macbeth and “Mrs Danvers” kissing and the paintings of Scottish kings and queens.)

        By storefront room, I meant the “street” outside all the storefronts. And now I’m not sure whether it was Lady Macbeth or the bald witch who did the kissing. I think it was Lady Macbeth, but I might have conflated your story and my memory. Fooey on unreliable memory!

    • Agreed! I was bitching and moaning about not getting to see the Kushner play, but of course I could have seen it instead of this, and I elected not to do that. And good decision by me! Because HBO will never ever possibly make a miniseries of Sleep No More. (I’m pinning all my hopes on HBO right now.)

  4. The more I hear about this, the more I hope Teresa and I visit NYC with our friends this summer, and convince them to come see this! Though they are kind of linear types, I dunno…

  5. This sounds amazing, and very, very strange. I bet it’s an experience that you won’t soon forget though, and I would love to be a part of it someday…

  6. This sounds pretty scary! I’d run too if there was a stone statue pointing at me (I saw that Doctor Who episode!) – actually, a bathtub full of bloody water would creep me out, and even the audience wearing white masks would unnerve me. Sleep No More – it would give me some pretty bad dreams, that’s for sure!
    Did you have much of an idea of what it would be like beforehand?

    We never get to see/hear about productions like this – if we did, part of me would really, really want to experience it (curiosity kills this cat every time) – but it would probably be overruled by the sensible part of me, the part that reminds me that I really can’t bear to watch creepy movies.

    • I thought the masked audience members were going to make everything spooky, but they didn’t really. Because we were all poking through drawers and papers, and it’s hard to feel creepy about people who are behaving so nosily. I had an excellent sense of what it would be like beforehand, I read all about it everywhere I could.

      I don’t watch scary movies either! I promise. I never do. “Blink” is about the outer limits of how scary a scary thing can be.

  7. Jenny! This sounds SO FUN. I love the whole idea of performance as an experienced environment. Also, I love the way you wrote about it.

    I’m afraid of mandrakes too. Looks like a creepy little person, plus poisonous, equals scary.

    • I actually have no clue whether it was an actual mandrake. I have no idea what a real mandrake looks like. But the thing in the drawer looked like what I have always imagined a mandrake would look like. I.e., really scary! And all bumpy! And probably cursed.

    • Elizabeth Goudge is a little late to that party. Berthe Amoss made mandrakes terrifying forever with that book Lost Magic. Brrrr. What does Elizabeth Goudge do?

    • IT WAS SO AMAZING. I felt very lucky to be able to go to it. I want more theater companies to do comparable things. I think this whole idea has Possibilities.

    • It was, it was. My post was originally like six times this length, and then I decided I had to stop and not tell every single thing that happened. It was all just so cool! The attention to detail was unbelievable. I kept looking for the Gatsby uncut books equivalent, and there really was none. (The piano didn’t work, but the piped-in music was pretty key to what was going on, and I expect they just didn’t want the audience messing it up with piano music.)

  8. This sounds beyond amazing. Theatre, with total access! No fourth wall! My dream production, basically.

    Although, the stone angels would’ve scared me, too. And I’m not sure what I’d have done if I stumbled into the taxidermist’s shop. Taxidermy and I do not get along.

    • I know, right? And you know, if you got into the taxidermy and found it did not agree with you, you could just go right back out again. There were lots of places to explore apart from the taxidermist, including, Teresa says, a candy shop where you can eat the candy. I’m sad I missed the candy shop.

  9. Just read the article in Vanity Fair on Emma Stone and it starts out with her going to THIS! I wonder if it was the same night. I felt very smug and impressed with myself because I have a friend who wrote an amazing blog post on this experience and thus I am cool, too. ha.

  10. Pingback: Review: The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern « Jenny's Books

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