The last time I saw The Scottish Play – reimagined by the British theatre company Punchdrunk in New York as an immersive experience called Sleep No More – I found Macbeth's letter to Lady Macbeth before she did.
Bearing news of the witches’ prophesies, it was somewhat carelessly left lying about, stuck snuggly between the taps of a half-filled bathtub in the centre of a large, darkly lit room that looked out over the heath through a wall of glass doors.
When Lady Macbeth suddenly stormed into this space, I quickly shoved the letter back where I found it with a feeling of guilt for having opened another person's mail. My sense of embarrassment was compounded by the fact that Mrs. M was naked from the waist up and perhaps 20 people all wearing white masks – like the one I was wearing – were following her in hot pursuit.
Lady Macbeth paid no attention, however, as she absorbed Macbeth's words inches away from me. When her husband shortly thereafter arrived on the scene, the two engaged in an intimate, passionate dance in and over the bathtub that evolved into a sort of tango of physical persuasion that turned almost violent.
I was dazed and exhilarated by Sleep No More – which is directed and choreographed by Maxine Doyle and Felix Barrett – in New York in May, just a few weeks before it was set to close. But this sleeper, off-Broadway hit has zeroed in on a untapped market of adventurous voyeurs and has been subsequently extended again and again. It's now running to Oct. 15.
Results may vary from the description above: Sleep No More’s audience members are set loose in a giant set that sprawls over multiple floors of a warehouse on West 27th Street that has, in part, been refashioned into a 1930s-style hotel called The McKittrick.
It's up to individual spectators to track down one of the 20 or so performers in this space and glean what narrative they can from their actions (and any pre-existing knowledge of Shakespeare's tragedy). It's also possible to simply treat Sleep No More as an art installation and spend its 2 1/2 hours peeking through drawers and reading letters and notes. Given the endless possible journeys through the piece, it's no surprise that there there's an unusually high rate of audience recidivism.
Punchdrunk, which has been around in Britain since 2000, has essentially found a way to perfect the often awkward form of performance known as immersive theatre, but which also exists in variations known as promenade, site-specific or environmental theatre.
There's nothing particularly new about letting audience members Choose Their Own Adventure, of course. Two decades ago, Toronto's Necessary Angel company pioneered that aesthetic with John Krizanc's play Tamara, which was staged through Strachan House in Trinity-Bellwoods Park and then remounted in Los Angeles and New York.
But the majority of immersive theatre feels straitjacketed compared to what Punchdrunk does with its best work like Sleep No More. Ever since I was nearly kicked in the head by Mephistopheles in the basement of a derelict archive building during their adaptation of Goethe's Faust in London, other site-specific shows have left me unexcited, even ones other critics have raved about in Toronto.
Here are four things Punchdrunk does that have separated them from the pack:
1) They speak through movement rather than words. The main problem with most promenade theatre is that the acoustics are invariably, well, site-specific, and so dialogue can be hard to hear. A script is rarely satisfying in snippets, but at a Punchdrunk show, something is communicated whether you're looking at a physical action through a window or standing a foot away.
2) They make the audience disappear in plain view. The white masks all spectators must wear add to the unsettling voyeurism of a Punchdrunk experience – it's like being in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut – but they also make it easier to spot cast members and maintain your focus on them. They also function as an important psychological boundary; Punchdrunk shows are not about participation, per se.
3) They allow real freedom of movement and action – even greater freedom than in a video game where you're limited to what the programmers have imagined. The vast majority of site-specific shows I've seen liberate you from chairs, only to herd you from makeshift theatre space to makeshift theatre space.
4) They give you a second chance to get a first impression. There's a learning curve to being in the audience of a Punchdrunk show. I suspect that's why in the three shows of theirs I've seen, the action always repeats – with minor variations – about halfway through. That way you can plan to see the entirety of a scene you only glimpsed before – or find an entirely new way through the show.
There are limitations to what Punchdrunk does, of course, and there are diminishing returns to their aesthetic. But you could say the same thing about Cirque du Soleil. All artists interested in theatre that exists outside of theatres should catch Sleep No More if they can – and take notes.