I don’t think it matters how old you are, you can always learn something new about yourself. Last night, for instance, I learned that I do not very much enjoy being in a dark environment, wearing a mask, with no clue what’s going on. But there I was – a spectator in the very unusual and definitely original production of “Sleep No More”.
I’d heard a lot about this show beforehand; not so much the plot, but about the premise. The show takes place in an old warehouse that the theatre company has called “The McKittrick Hotel”. Inside, the hallways are pitch-black and I basically had to go in and feel my way along until I came to the coat check desk. Then I had to pay $3 to surrender all my possessions (except my credit card) and then walk to the end of the hall to the front/check-in desk. Once there, a woman gave me a playing card – my room key – and she instructed me to go upstairs to the bar. Again, I was plunged into darkness and already at this point I was starting to feel a bit unsettled. I am not scared of the dark by any means, but I honestly didn’t know where I was going or how many stairs or corridors it would take to get me to the bar. As I gripped the walls and felt my way along them, it wasn’t long before I heard soft music and the sound of talking, so I followed the noises and emerged through two heavy velvet curtains into a scene that could have been a New York speakeasy in the 1930s.
The bar was abuzz with actors/performers in beaded dresses and fur stoles, and men with slicked-back hair and suits with suspenders. But do you know the first thing I thought about? “The Shining”. It was an impression that stayed with me for the rest of the night. There was something other-worldly about this place and I felt “off” the entire time. Like I was in a dream, possibly a nightmare, and I had stumbled on a scene in which I had to find my own way – with no instructions, and no help of any kind.
I ordered a glass of cold prosecco from the actor/barman and sat down to people-watch. I had arrived a little early, and so from my little cabaret table I observed a bunch of people wandering in, stumbling through the velvet curtains into the unusual bar. Nobody seemed quite sure what they were supposed to be doing, so in a way I felt good that my confusion was not unusual. Every few minutes a man would get up on the stage, martini in hand, and slur a bunch of numbers and garbled instructions about finishing our drinks and entering the hotel. The numbers corresponded to our “room keys”. I was waiting for K and her friends to arrive, so I didn’t move at all, but I did watch groups of people peel off into the darkness of the Hotel. Part of me really just wanted to stay in the bar, where even the creepiness was at least starting to feel familiar. The idea of the unknown was not exciting to me at all.
Before long, our group had assembled and we were soon fortified by prosecco and the notion of “safety in numbers”. We lined up and were given a large white mask (semi-Venetian I guess, and very reminiscent of “Eyes Wide Shut” – another reason I was feeling weird). The masks were essential because they helped differentiate you from the performers inside the hotel, who were not wearing them. We were instructed not to remove our masks at any time, and not to talk at all. Similarly, we were told that there were people scattered around the hotel who were wearing black masks. They were there to help guide us out, if we wanted to leave – but even still, we weren’t allowed to ask them questions. We were told that things were not as they seemed in the Hotel. Again, I wasn’t even excited anymore; curious maybe, but in a way I was also dreading it.
Little by little I lost the members of our group. My experience ended up being a lot like a picture book I had as a child (and I cannot remember the title) but it’s about a family that goes to an old mansion for a day trip and one by one, each family member gets swallowed up by the house and overgrown garden, and in the end only one little girl gets out alive. Yep, it’s a kid’s book and it freaked me out for years. And yet here I was, live and in living colour at the McKittrick Hotel, blending in with my other masked audience members and waiting to encounter something.
From time to time though, I stumbled into a room where actors were actually performing. They were surrounded by masked audience members, intently watching the talented dancing and focussed interplay. And you can’t argue the physicality of the dancers – they were amazing, for the bits that I saw. But stumbling on this sort of scene, totally out of context, you really don’t know what you’re watching. Is there a story? Where in the plot am I? What IS the plot? Often the dancer/actor would leave the room, and groups of audience members would high tail it after him/her to see where they would go next. In that way, the performance became what you made it. I suspect that if you followed one particular actor, you could craft a better sense of what the overall plot was supposed to be. I’d heard that the story was supposed to be “Macbeth” but I have to admit that the disjointed performances I saw last night did not give me that overall impression. For instance, I couldn’t recall the rather graphic and strobe-lit episode with the witches sacrificing the human babies in the version of the play that I had read. Indeed, when we talked about it later, I realised I had (fortunately) missed visiting the hotel room with decapitated baby dolls nailed to the wall. But hey, perhaps it’s all a question of interpretation. And I couldn’t deny the talent of the performers to remain focussed, even when surrounded by masked audience members standing about 3 inches away from them. I don't think I could ever concentrate with someone's masked face right up in my business.
As weird as it sounds, given the potential for exploration and full immersion in the unusual experience, “Sleep No More” was totally innovative but it really didn’t do it for me. I just couldn’t relax in there. I didn’t know what was going on, I couldn’t find the exits, and I couldn’t make sense of the episodic, mostly silent, dances I witnessed. I think by the time I had started walking around and became quickly disoriented, “The Shining” had become so embedded in my brain, I was convinced that I was surrounded by menace. I could not relax and just surrender to the experience; there was just something unseemly about it. So I was sincerely relieved when I stumbled through another set of velvet curtains and found myself back in the bar again. Removing my mask, and sitting back to listen to beautiful jazz music and singing, I started to feel like myself again.
Like it or not, “Sleep No More” is definitely a show that will stay with me. It was not necessarily an experience I would like to repeat, but it’s definitely a creative, immersive idea and I’m very glad I went along. I just wish I could have blocked “Here’s Johnny!” from my mind and relaxed into it a bit better.