After two incredible visits to Punchdrunk’s London-based immersive theatre spectacle The Drowned Man, I finally found myself in New York City to see their production of Sleep No More– a fully interactive interpretation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
The entire experience is a fantastic whirlwind adventure into the secrets, betrayal, and ambition prevalent in Macbeth. You live the story with the characters, and if the elements created by Shakespeare weren’t enough, Punchdrunk have also added subplots of life and death in a Victorian mental hospital and themes, particularly concerning children, to give the production an extra level of horror and wonder.
The evening takes place over several floors filled with rooms to dive into. You are meant to explore at your heart’s content. Open the drawers, go through boxes, letters, and be curious. Characters drift in and out of the rooms to communicate their story through dance, and will appear in a scene only to flee in opposing directions at the conclusion of the scene. You have to quickly decide who to follow, and who’s story will be more relevant to the path you chose to take for yourself.
You’ll have near on three hours to enjoy the evening as you wish, but be warned—the fear of missing out is rife. You have to make instantaneous decisions about who to follow, how to divide your time, and what floors to be on when. You will absolutely miss something important at some point, but regardless of what you see, the wonder and thrill of seeing it will more than satiate you.
The set design and the world you step into is incredible. There’s a wonderful barbed wire and stick-hedge maze, eerie Victorian hospital wards, a bar made entirely of cardboard boxes, a secret passage in a wardrobe and the banqueting scene (where the finale is set) is a spectacle. There is an outstanding room that must be seen to be believed—a child’s bedroom, with what appears to be a reflective mirror—until you stand too close to it and a horrible scene becomes visible.
It is genius set design.
The way the story unfolds is engaging, and always leaves you wanting more. It’s very standard Punchdrunk – and then there’s the scene with Macbeth and the three witches and suddenly the concept of theatre is transported to another level. Lights go off, techno music drops, haunting screams ring out and strobe lighting illuminates what is absolutely the best moment in theatre I have ever seen. Hearts are racing, breath is drawn, and the spectacle is jaw-dropping. I walked out of that room trembling, and I’m still not quite the same three days later.
My only slight critique of the evening is that the characters are a little hard to follow; something which is admittedly not that dissimilar from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. As there are so many characters, it can be tough to identify who is who simply based on short snatched scenes. Lady Macbeth is the exception to the rule; Omagbitse Omagbemi is wonderful in this role. Her anguish is palpable, and she completely owns every scene she appears in. She is at her best sobbing and screaming whilst fully naked in a bathtub of bloody water.
We end the evening with the banquet scene; a scene which will certainly leave shivers down your spine. There’s a very clever set up at the banquet table, which is rife with religious reference, as is a lot of the overall set up. A band entertains in the bar afterwards, and programs are on sale which are helpful for answering any character questions you might have.
There are no wrong answers in Punchdrunk, except not to go in the first place. Punchdrunk have woken up a sleeping beast in the theatre world, and it rages beautifully in New York City. This is outstanding, breathtaking, and inspiring theatre. You will not find a better show than Sleep No More—except for, of course, their London production, The Drowned Man.
“If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me.”
Make no mistake, after creating shows like this, Punchdrunk can wear any theatre crown they chose.