I remember the first time I went to see Sleep No More, the immersive theatrical take on Macbeth, over a year ago, I thought I might need to go just one more time to wrap my mind around what I’d witnessed. Now, somehow, this Monday I reached my tenth visit, yet the show still holds some mystery and draw in its beauty that has yet to fade for me. I haven’t done a recap in a while because I feared they might get a little repetitive, but this ended up being one of my favorite evenings, and there are details I want to remember.
This particular visit was especially wonderful, as it was part of the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, a festival of events revolving around glorious mixed drinks, and was featuring Bowmore scotch whiskey cocktails all evening. I love scotch whiskey perhaps as much as I love Sleep No More, so I did not doubt it was going to be an enjoyable experience, yet I wasn’t prepared for quite how extraordinary it was. I went with my friend Sean who hadn’t been before, and we found ourselves checking in with the first round of guests. After quickly drinking a Taxidermy After Dark cocktail (I mean, it was pretty much named so that I would consume 20 of them), we found ourselves in the elevator. I love to arrive early as you get to experience the space alone before the crowds later in the night, although this night it never actually got that busy. It was probably the best audience I’ve experienced, aside from the guy who shoved me into a wall to get a one-on-one with Malcolm (I hope that he then enjoyed being shoved into a wall himself), but I didn’t see one person check their phone and the linked couples were rare. The first round of the ballroom scene where many of the characters arrive for a party had only a few other people watching, and Lady Macduff actually walked over to pass out into my arms since I was the only person on her side of the ballroom.
“Macbeth seeing the ghost of Banquo” by Théodore Chassériau (from WikiCommons)
What I continue to find fascinating about Sleep No More is how from different angles a scene can change, how different characters and the actors who play them can alter your perspective on this tragic story. I found that often I was watching a scene with a character where previously I thought the other character was alone. I even discovered a whole room that I had no idea existed, which is insane for how much time I’ve spent in this space. (Technically, over a day.) This happened when I followed Banquo, who I later found out was played by the extraordinary dancer Tony Bordonaro. I guess I had never stuck with this character long enough for his whole arc (the characters go in roughly hour-long loops of the performance which repeats three times), and was just blown away by the gorgeous, acrobatic movement throughout the choreography. It’s been a while since I was dancing, but having done ballet, pointe, and lyrical for about ten years I still have a great admiration for how good dancers can make precise control and challenging movement look so fluid and natural. (Actually, between Sleep No More and seeing the film Pina, I’ve decided to start taking dance again, although modern instead of ballet.) For those of you who haven’t read Macbeth recently, Banquo receives a prophecy, like Macbeth, from the witches. However, his is that he himself will not be king, but his descendants will be. Macbeth murders Banquo in his quest for power (in Sleep No More this is one of the more violent scenes), although his son Fleance escapes. Banquo’s ghost later shows up to haunt Macbeth, also depicted in Sleep No More in an unsettling fashion.
Anyway, let us step back from the Shakespeare recaps and return to Sleep No More, which is much more an interpretation of the mood and tone of Macbeth than a chronicle of each of its plot points. I oddly found myself alone watching Banquo in some of the most striking dances, including a writhing, tortured scene that occurs during Duncan’s murder and a gravity-defying dance in a coat room. I realize of course that the dancers perform whether or not anyone is watching in Sleep No More, but I still felt really honored to witness these amazing performances with silence around me. This all led to the room I had never seen, where I found myself alone with Banquo, who removed my mask and revealed that I was in fact Fleance. I will not spoil exactly what happens, but I did end up with ashes and oil on my hands. Whether or not this was why when I found myself right after dancing with the Boy Witch he could not stop laughing I’m not sure. Maybe he thought I had been digging around in the graveyard.
I roamed around for a while after that, taking in the space without the usual swell of people. The other character who I really spent a significant amount of time with was the Taxidermist. You can return to my original choice of Bowmore cocktail and leave your surprise there. The guy who was playing him this night, and I didn’t see him after so I’m not sure of the name, was so wonderfully creepy. He was cleaning bones in the taxidermy shop and drooling everywhere, and also chipping out pieces of marrow and eating them. He even played a shoulder bone like a violin with a file, making a dreadful screeching noise, and then put all the bones in a glass cabinet while experimenting with the different horrid creaking noises the lid could make. For some reason, everyone else in the audience left. At one point he reached over and felt my spine, testing the size of the bones, and then gripped my arm and brought me into a dark room where he seemed to look over other aspects of my skeleton. I thought of how the Irish Giant must have felt when gazed at by the anatomist John Hunter. Other strange stuff happened, and it was definitely more sinister and creepy than my encounter with another taxidermist during a previous Sleep No More visit. I love how different actors interpret the characters. Yes, the choreography and paths are the same, but just like Macbeth read by one actor can be dramatically different from the next, so can dance and the spirit of the characters.
Although I had intended to take a break at the bar for another cocktail, the time got away from me and I found myself at the end. I was transfixed watching the final banquet scene and thinking about the hours before and didn’t realize that Mrs. Danvers, the maid referencing a character from Hitchcock’s Rebecca, was standing beside me until I felt hands on my shoulders and saw her cowering behind me so she didn’t have to watch the horrible conclusion to Macbeth’s murderous journey. (I feel fine spoiling the end of a 400 year old play, so sorry if you did not know that Macbeth dies.) She ended up escorting me to the hotel lobby where the after party was to take place and left me with an ominous letter from Macbeth to Lady Macbeth.
The after party was fantastic. Every drink I had was delicious and I definitely have to do more Manhattan Cocktail Classic events next year. I regret that I missed their gala in the New York Public Library, because in addition to Sleep No More and scotch whiskey, I also take great joy in books and old libraries. Sometimes I am amazed at how many passionate obsessions I can contain within my head.
So will I go again? Well, that’s actually already been decided as yes and there are tickets to my name. I won’t give you the date so you won’t stage the intervention. But as long as it stays open and it continues to wrap me in its world I will not regret more visits. It’s interesting how it has made me think about engaging with art in other contexts as well. I was at the opening of Tom Sach’s Mission Mars exhibit at the Armory last night (don’t worry, I’ll definitely post more about that soon), and felt like the decision to give my mind over to it as an immersive experience where we totally believe people are about to go to Mars was a continuation of my mindset from the night of Sleep No More before. (Or is that called a hangover? I don’t know…) It also makes me think of my own art, and how I want my writing to not be confined to some screen, but a living thing that changes a mental reality, if only for a brief moment.