My name is Gail and I am addicted to Punchdrunk. A couple of months ago I was still in single figures on The Drowned Man, but was starting to get itchy feet. I loved the show (and still very much do), but I found myself craving the magic of initial discovery – of climbing stairs, of peering around doors, of coming across actors mid-scene, never quite knowing what I’d find next. There really was only one thing for it: a trip to New York to go and see Sleep No More, Punchdrunk’s take on Macbeth, with a 1930’s film noir twist. Possibly one of the most expensive theatre expeditions I’ve ever been on, but thoroughly worth it.
Sleep No More has been running since 2011 and while I may “only” be up to 12 visits on The Drowned Man, some of the SNM superfans have clocked up over 70 performances and naturally have flown over to London just to see TDM (and some of them are already over 30 visits on that – I’m pretty sure they must be selling souls on eBay). This has developed into something of an exchange programme with fans helping each other to get the best of each respective show, especially given that with flights, hotels, tickets and annual leave to consider, you might only be able to fit in a finite number of shows in any one trip.
After a lot of financial calculations (to get as much ‘bang for my buck’, as they say) I finally settled on 4 shows, every night Saturday to Tuesday. With tickets purchased, there was then a fine balance to be struck: how to get the most out of 4 visits whilst retaining most of the magic. Thankfully, some SNM fans kindly compiled a guide to help me (and others) to wander with purpose, to identify characters quickly yet without spoiling any surprises. I was hesitant to read such a guide, but curiosity got the better of me and I was glad that I had read it before going in. Any TDM fans planning to see SNM absolutely MUST read it before going. It gives you one or two vital clues which will give you the best start you could possibly wish for, but without ruining anything.
The most important thing I found was to go in with a good solid knowledge of Macbeth to help ascertain characters – who they are in relation to each other, not just by the guide. That and to be prepared for it to be crowded almost everywhere (but especially on the stairs), which makes it difficult to follow complete loops and to be prepared to lose an actor whom you’re following. But the Hitchcock-esque styling is spot on and adds a real chill to the evening’s proceedings. I was also lucky enough to be put in touch with some of the SNM superfans, so they met me post-show to help me mull over everything that I’d seen – I was immensely grateful to them and plan to return the favour if they come to London.
Here endeth the musings – the following video contains just the music from my favourite scene, which I must’ve watched 10 times across 4 visits, purely because it has the most exquisite dance sequence and truly evokes that 1930s glamour. Beyond are spoilery details from all 4 of my visits. If you have plans to see Sleep No More for yourself, here would be a good place to stop 🙂
Oh you’re still here. Marvellous…
Due to a long immigration queue at JFK airport, I arrived at The McKIttrick Hotel much later than planned. But I made it nonetheless and worked out that by the time I got in (pushing on for 8pm – it had started at 7pm) they’d be coming up to finishing the first loop and starting the second. Having been through the usual drill with masks and a lift, I stepped into the dimly lit world. I did as recommended in the guide and headed straight down to the basement to watch the sublime dance sequence that takes place to the above music. Although my guide had hinted that Macbeth would be found on the balcony one floor up, so having spotted a man who fitted the description looking down to the dancefloor below, it seemed foolish to wander away from him. To my complete surprise, I actually managed to stay with him for a whole loop, even if I didn’t always have the best view and had to really leg it up and down the stairs on several occasions just to keep pace.
This is a man who is browbeaten by his power hungry wife – their tempestuous relationship demonstrated by some powerful and violent choreography contrasted with moments of fragility e.g. the scene in the bath, above. Spurred on by prophecies from the witches (including one mindblowing rave scene complete with strobes, lasers and thudding D&B, culminating in a hedonistic bloody ritual) one murder soon leads to another and another. He suffocates King Duncan, caves in Banquo’s head with a brick and savagely beats the heavily pregnant Lady Macduff to death. Even at his most cold-blooded, none of it ever seems to be enough for his wife. Finally he is executed by the vengeful Macduff – the sight of his hanging corpse over the audience is truly haunting and there is something unnerving about the creaking noises seamlessly drifting into the faintly romantic ‘And A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ as we were led back into the Manderley bar.
If there are 2 things that really don’t mix, it’s a day of sightseeing on foot around New York followed by 3 hours of Punchdrunk. Perhaps the McKittrick has magic floorboards that absorb the pain in your aching feet or the action is just so fascinating that it takes your mind off everything. But having seen a good portion of the action yesterday, I decided to find out what was on that mysterious top floor – I found myself following a Male Nurse through a creepy looking hospital/asylum. I was quite shocked by how rude some of the audience were (waving hands in front of his face, motioning that they were going to mess up the neatly laid out desk – it was all I could do not to thump them). We wandered back and forth between the ward and the laundry room as he painstakingly laid out pyjamas on each bed. There was a lot of this. Eventually there was a dance in a window frame and a dash through a maze of twigs (both very evocative), but when I saw him go back into the laundry room, I decided it was perhaps time to go and find one of the other characters downstairs.
I found myself back at the scene where Macbeth murders Lady Macduff and the heartbreak as Macduff finds her sprawled out on the floor. He scoops her up for one final dance and then gently lays her down on a chaise before leaving for a final act of vengeance. But I found myself compelled to stay with her – there’s a real gentleness to her character, a lone nurturing figure at the mercy of the power struggle that surrounds her. Yet she seems constantly vulnerable and on edge: anxious about some impending fate. She plunges herself into ritual and superstition as a source of familiarity and comfort. Her dance at the top of a bookcase (where she seems to have stashed religious icons away from the view of her husband) is troubled and strangely harrowing for something so subtle.
I found myself back at the rave eventually, but having got there a bit earlier, I was just in time to hear and see something I’d missed the previous night in the mêlée of crowds and strobes: Hecate. Every inch the 1930s glamorous Hollywood blonde bombshell in a scarlet ballgown, she cackles manically. Had I not heard this, I may never have seen her. Her influence over the other witches is tangible, borderline Stockholm syndrome. Following her loop, I started to see the full extent of her Machiavellian streak and how she toys with all the other characters. I was lucky enough to receive one of her 1:1s where she tells the story of a ship lost at sea – after plunging a paper boat into a teacup, I was dragged into a dark cupboard and had water sprayed in my face while she rocked me back and forth, howling with laughter. A chilling night.
I’m not a 1:1 hunter, but with only 2 visits left, I found myself with an urge to fill in a few gaps. So with the knowledge that Lady Macduff’s 1:1 happens soon after the party scene (and having missed it the previous night), I decided the first loop before the crowds got in might be a good time to at least ‘try’ for it. As it happens, there was only one other audience member who followed her, so I didn’t feel too guilty about accepting her hand when she offered. I was ushered into a room little bigger than a cupboard for more ritual and superstition – in a soothing voice, she told me a story “when you were a little girl, I used to give you a dab of salt behind the ear to keep you safe…”. So with salt behind my ear and a folded paper pocket filled with more salt, I was sent on my way.
I eventually found my way back to the banquet scene (which also preceeds the finale) – with a long table, it struck me how much it resembles a grotesque version of the painting ‘The Last Supper’ – more religious imagery that I hadn’t noticed before. From here I was able to pick up Banquo for a complete loop. As part of the reset, he helped to move the Christmas trees around the edge of the room are shuffled back into position to create a forest – suddenly I spotted the correlation with Birnam Wood being on the move.
There are many wonderful dances in Banquo’s sequence, but one of my favourites has to be in the hotel cloakroom with Macbeth as they clamber around the rails. Some things seem to require an Olympian level of fitness (which I really don’t have), but after the party scene I somehow summoned the energy to race up 5 flights of stairs to keep up with Banquo. I don’t know who was more impressed, me or him. It didn’t take long before we’re back downstairs again to witness the aftermath of Duncan’s murder. I was lucky enough to be selected for his 1:1, which is where you get a little more of the Shakespeare text (given that much of the main action has no speaking). “we have scorched the snake, not killed it….” and you start to sense his unease of things to come. Eventually we ended up back upstairs (again!) in a makeshift speakeasy for a tense card game between Banquo, Malcolm and Macduff – there seems to be an endless stream of King of Diamonds cards in the pack, each of which is nailed to the wall – seemingly the king that they just can’t get rid of.
A final visit – and in some ways not my finest, as I found myself trying to pack too much in. A slightly disjointed night of trying to second guess things and inevitably getting it wrong. There is only so much of an agenda you can take in with you. But I managed to follow Malcolm for what equated to one complete loop – just split down the middle when I lost him. He also doubles as a detective-like character in Gallow Green, but when Macduff visits his office, they open a drawer filled with trees and move them around – another reference to Birnam wood. I was also selected for his 1:1 (slightly disgusting – he spat a soggy feather into my hand). But I managed to lose him as he ran out of his office, but having found Lady Macbeth, I followed her instead.
There is a real sense of her frustrations with her husband and some truly haunting moments when she goes up to the hospital ward on the 5th floor for a bath. At every turn she seems to be trying to maintain face whilst completely losing it in private. This allowed me to fill in the gaps which I’d missed while following Macbeth before heading back to find Malcolm at the point where I’d lost him. He hadn’t gone far. Eventually I caught him and Macduff as they raced into a small room for one of the most terrifying bits of choreography. With room for about 6 audience, the interrogation room has a chair and a ceiling lamp on a long cord – which they promtly began to swing back and forth, constantly moving around and dodging the lamp. Only it was swinging quite close to my face which was a little unnerving. But an incredible feat in a confined space.
I’d hoped to follow a bit of Macduff for the final loop – so to spare myself those 5 flights of stairs at speed, I left the party scene a minute early (a wrench, even having watched it 10 times) and waited on the 4th floor for him to follow Banquo through the door. Banquo arrived, but no Macduff. Presumably one of the 3rd loop adaptations to get everyone to the finale at the same time! With nothing for it, I found myself wandering around Gallow Green hunting for something I hadn’t seen. But rather than ‘waste’ time running around the building, I found myself drawn to Agnes – the young woman in love with Malcolm. Sleep No More also has Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ as a secondary storyline and Agnes is borrowed from this.
I found her in a small shop cutting a length of red cotton thread, tying it onto a locket and then snipping a few lines out of a book and folding it up to put in the locket. For a final loop it seemed strange that she only had about 6 of us with her – there seemed to be a trend across my 4 visits of some characters being absolutely mobbed while others had a relatively small audience. But before I knew what was going on, she had locked me with a stare, taken my hand and led me into a small living room and locked the door behind us. (I do like a 1:1, but I often feel that they bear more weight when you have them in the context of a loop). But she shut the pair of us in a wardrobe and whispered into my ear the opening paragraph of ‘Rebecca’ – ” Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again…..”. She placed the locket around my neck and told me it would keep me safe. She then climbed out, leaving me to exit through a Narnia-like door into the back of the wardrobe.
So all in all – a good trip. Curiosity well and truly satisfied in 4 visits (perhaps a 5th would’ve been nice – although I could probably have said the same about a 6th and 7th). It’s amazing how much you can see if you put your mind to it, do a bit of careful spoiler-free reading and have the discipline to walk away from scenes you’ve already seen. Would I go back? If someone can find me the money for flights, hotel and tickets – yes I would! But for now, I’ll stick to the Punchdrunk shows that don’t require the use of my passport.