I’ve recently come back to London after spending just over two weeks in the United States on vacation, mostly in New York. While I was there I saw a number of fantastic shows, which I hope to talk about in a little more detail – Cabaret (I’m usually not a musicals guy, but I thoroughly enjoyed this – and yes, it’s all about Alan Cumming), Red Eye to Havre de Grace (haunting but also unexpectedly humorous in places – and beautifully choreographed by Sophie Bortolussi), Then She Fell (an exquisite immersive production that is both beautiful and heartbreaking), and Point Break Live (yes, you read that correctly, there’s a stage show of Point Break – and it’s awesome). However, I’m a chronically slow writer, and I may not get around to writing about those productions despite my best intentions – if that’s the case, I’ll just say now that I’d strongly recommend seeing any of those four shows if you happen to find yourself in New York soon (although not Red Eye, because it finished on June 1st).
But one of the absolute highlights of my trip to New York was being able to see Sleep No More. Going in, I was excited about seeing my second ever Punchdrunk production. That said, I was also a little worried. Worried that I’d spend all of my time comparing it to The Drowned Man. Worried that it wouldn’t click with me the way The Drowned Man had.
Thankfully, I fell in love with the show almost immediately, and spent six wonderful evenings exploring the mysteries of the McKittrick Hotel. I’ll touch on a number of things that I particularly loved, or particularly struck me.
I absolutely loved the highly refined “late 1930s film noir as directed by Alfred Hitchcock” aesthetic. From the costuming (lots of men in tuxedos and suits, women in glamorous evening dresses) to the décor, the atmosphere is gorgeous, dark, and elegant. And, just as in The Drowned Man with its soundtrack of doo-wop and Shangri-Las songs, the music and sound design goes a long way in sustaining this atmosphere in Sleep No More. Period pieces by Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey sit alongside tracks from Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores, such as Vertigo and Psycho. And, just like The Drowned Man, a lot of this music has a way of looping in your mind long after the show is over - it wasn’t long before I found myself in a music store picking up some Benny Goodman albums …
It’s interesting that the emotional tone of Sleep No More almost never varies. I find that the emotional tone of The Drowned Man actually varies quite a bit, with moments of horror and sinister dread, but also moments that are sweet, warm, and sometimes even laugh out loud funny (am I alone in thinking Punchdrunk would actually be able to pull off an immersive screwball comedy - something in the style of “Bringing up Baby”?). In Sleep No More, however, the tone is tightly defined - moody, dark and sinister, with an ever-present hint of the supernatural.
Another difference that struck me is the absolute absence of dialogue in Sleep No More. There’s actually quite a lot of dialogue in The Drowned Man, while there’s virtually none in Sleep No More, other than a murmured word or two. Absolutely everything is expressed through movement – and yet we know exactly what the characters are “saying” to each other, sometimes even down to specific lines from Macbeth. The scenes where Lady Macbeth is egging on her partner to murder King Duncan, for example, are a joy to watch. (Perhaps we can think of Sleep No More as one of the last silent movies, while The Drowned Man is most definitely a “talkie”.)
Being able to explore an entirely new alternate universe was wonderful. I still love The Drowned Man, but after repeated visits certain areas of Temple Studios now feel quite familiar to me. So when I walked into the McKittrick it was wonderful to re-experience the feelings I had when I entered Temple Studios for the first time - a place where literally everything was unknown and mysterious and ready to be explored. It’s a wonderful, heady feeling.
After the cinematic scale of The Drowned Man, which is sweeping and epic in some of its areas, the much tighter spaces of Sleep No More really struck me. Of course, in many ways “tighter” is just comparatively speaking - if I had never been to Temple Studios, I’d be describing the McKittrick as an enormous space, sprawling over several floors. That said, many of the spaces are smaller - while The Drowned Man plays out on large soundstages and in deserts and forests, Sleep No More’s action often happens in places such as cramped baggage check areas, intimate changing rooms, small crypts. This has a fascinating impact on the choreography, with walls, shelves, and ceilings often incorporated into the movement, with some characters literally climbing the walls at times - it’s breath-taking stuff. (There are larger set-pieces too, though, which are wonderful.)
I also loved it as a production of Macbeth. It’s fascinating to follow characters who, in a regular production, have walked off stage – what do those three witches get up to when they’re not busy dispensing prophecies to Macbeth and Banquo? Well, now’s your chance to find out. Also, I find it interesting that this is a production of Macbeth that actually retains Hecate (recent McAvoy and Brannagh productions dispensed with the character – and let’s face it, the scene when she runs around and sings with the other witches would come off a bit goofy in most productions). I won’t say much about Hecate, but I can assure you that in Sleep No More she is in no way goofy, and is well worth spending some time around.
I love that there are spaces where you can hang out even if you aren’t going to the show itself. There’s Gallow Green, the gorgeous rooftop bar with a range of excellent cocktails, and The Heath, the restaurant where diners may sometimes find themselves whisked away from their tables and into a 1:1. You don’t need a ticket to go to either of those spaces (and they’re kept separate from the show, so there’s no risk of accidentally wandering in), but they both maintain the carefully cultivated atmosphere of Sleep No More - so even if you’re just popping by for an open air drink for an hour or two, you can still enjoy the ambience the McKittrick Hotel. Even the Manderley bar itself, Sleep No More’s equivalent to Studio 3 in The Drowned Man, becomes open to the public after the show has finished and stays open for quite a while, with a different band playing each night. It’s wonderful that Sleep No More has these extra spaces - although it does make me sad that The Drowned Man never got to have these kinds of added extras.
Okay, at this point I’m narrowing things down to some specific characters, performers, and moments (so I’m really talking about my specific experiences here):
It was an absolute pleasure to be able to see Anna Finkel and Paul Zivkovich perform again. In The Drowned Man both Paul’s Fool and Anna’s Wendy were works of heart-breaking beauty (and Anna’s Drugstore Girl once took me down to the finale, which is about five minutes of my life that I’ve never forgotten.) Of course, Sleep No More fans are already well acquainted with Paul as he was there before he migrated to The Drowned Man, but as far as I know Anna is new to Sleep No More. New York, you’re in for an absolute treat - she’s amazing.
(Anna Finkel and Paul Zivkovich - images taken from Sleep No More’s Facebook.)
I loved following the witches, particularly Bald Witch (the stunning Hope Davis – completely magnetic and powerful) and Sexy Witch (who pulled me in into an utterly dizzying interaction – apologies, I didn’t find out the performer’s name, but she was amazing). As I said before, it’s fascinating to follow characters who in Shakespeare’s text have walked off stage, and see where they go next. And if you’re lucky, you just might get to dance with one of the witches, which is lovely.
(Hope Davis - image taken from Sleep No More’s Facebook.)
Banquo (Tim Heck) has some absolutely amazing solo dances (and a fantastic one with Bald Witch too), and a moment of audience interaction that is incredibly emotional – I could feel my eyes tearing up as it happened. I was also fortunate enough to be walked out to the Manderley at the end of the same show by Banquo, which built on the emotions from before – as he smiled gently at me and squeezed my arm, I felt I was saying goodbye to family, or an old friend.
(Tim Heck - image taken from Sleep No More’s Facebook.)
Hecate (Zhauna Franks) giving me a mission which saw me pounding through the McKittrick with a very sketchy knowledge of the building’s layout in my head, and being rewarded with an utterly bonkers interaction when I (somehow) successfully made it back. She also has, for me, one of the creepiest moments of the show that I saw – but hey, she is the queen of the witches, so that’s only fair.
(Zhauna Franks - image taken from The Pensive Professor on Sleep No More.)
The Porter (Austin Goodwin) - quite possibly the saddest of Sleep No More’s characters. If you want to spend some time dwelling on the bittersweet pain of unrequited love, the Porter’s your man. He’s also a fascinating character in the way that he pops up on the periphery of a number of other character’s stories – it’s interesting to suddenly find yourself reviewing a scene you’ve seen before through very different eyes.
(Austin Goodwin - image taken from Sleep No More’s Facebook.)
Lady Macduff (Kristin Clotfelter) – following Lady Macduff was an experience that I found to be emotional and heartbreaking. But not heartbreaking in the romantic sense, or in the sense of something that’s beautifully sad, both of which would fit for the Porter. Lady Macduff is a character that your heart totally goes out to, somebody that you want to protect, and because of this watching what she goes through is pretty upsetting. It’s an amazing loop, but be prepared to be emotionally bruised by the end of it.
(Kristin Clotfelter - image taken from Sleep No More’s Facebook.)
Agnes Naismith (sadly, I didn’t get this performer’s name either) - if you want to follow someone who’s trying to unravel a mystery, Agnes is totally for you.
The Manderley Bar - There were a number of different characters in Manderley on the nights that I went, greeting visitors as they came in, but the two characters there I connected with were Elizabeth (Virginia Logan) and Eveen (this was how she pronounced her name in an Irish accent - looking up Irish girls’ names suggests I should be spelling it Aoibheann – but if there are any Sleep No More or Irish name experts out there who know how this is spelled, do let me know! She was played by Megh Dixon). I had some highly amusing conversations with Elizabeth and Aoibheann – and I must say that the Manderley hosts are decidedly more flirty than the Studio Executives in Studio 3! I also remember on two nights, after the show had finished and we had all settled in for drinks, Aoibheann singing Nature Boy in the Manderley, accompanied just by a music box, interspersing the song with monologues on life and love that were witty, warm, and sweet.
(Top - Virginia Logan, Bottom - Megh Dixon - images taken from Sleep No More’s Facebook.)
One time, during a conversation in Manderley, Aoibheann introduced me to an artist called Gabriel, who sat me down and showed me a book of sketches he had done of McKittrick guests. “This is Agnes”, he would say, turning a page, “she’s just recently moved in. She’s a bit of a strange one.” Finally, he came to a blank page. “And this one”, he said, indicating the page “is you.” And then he began to sketch. Later, when he handed me what is quite frankly the most wonderful Punchdrunk memento I’ve ever been given, he said, “Have you heard the story that if you take a photo of someone, or sketch them, you steal a piece of their soul? Well, that’s complete nonsense. But let me tell you - what you’re holding does have a piece of my soul in it, so please take care of it.”
The three witches’ second prophecy to Macbeth – a scene that’s breath-taking in its audacity, in the way it absolutely smashes the refined aesthetic that has been carefully maintained up until that point. I could say more, and I know that Sleep No More fans refer to this scene in a particular way, but I really don’t want to say anything about it that would lessen the impact of the shock.
The interrogation scene between Malcolm and Macduff – if you’re lucky enough (and fast enough) to get into the tiny room where this happens, you’re in for an incredibly exciting scene.
The finale – a beautiful gutpunch of an ending that left me stunned every time. At the end of The Drowned Man, everyone always breaks into rapturous applause (and rightly so). That most certainly doesn’t happen at the end of Sleep No More (again, I could say more, but I think it would lessen the impact).
It’s a little over two weeks now since I returned to London, and my time in New York and at the McKittrick in particular is already fading from something sharp and vivid, and into my dreams … but I dream that perhaps, one day, I will be able to return to Manderley again.