There I was in bed, watching the numbers of the clock turn: 2:09, 2:10, ... 2:48. It was probably the dinner-time coffee that was disturbing my sleep, but I wasn't sure. I didn't remember having trouble sleeping the first time we experienced the A.R.T.'s Sleep No More. But this time was much stranger and my mind was still racing. Had Macbeth, or someone else, murdered my sleep?
There is already a lot of online commentary about this production so I'll stick to two thoughts (and leave the overall description to others).
First, as some have noted
, Sleep No More
is an immersive interactive experience that operates according to some of the same rules as video games. I was reminded particularly some of the older CD-Rom titles such as Myst
and (especially) Cosmology of Kyoto
. There is an extraordinary amount of mysterious detail: drawers and closets to open, letters to read, "wiccan" glyphs to interpret. A working knowledge of Macbeth and the work of Hitchcock will help unpack much of it, but there is still a multitude of raw experience that needs to be processed. In fact, during our first visit my wife and I spent more of our time exploring the "set" than watching the "play" itself. And it motivated me to read Macbeth
again, carefully, in the same way Cosmology of Kyoto
caused me to investigate Buddhist iconography.
Once you figure out one simple rule, though, you can experience more of the "play": follow characters. But characters who share a scene in one room may depart for different spaces, forcing a choice of whom to follow. By the end of the evening, Macbeth will generally attract a crowd of dozens (unless you're tall you might not see much), but even relatively peripheral characters seem to attract one or two loyal followers chasing after them. And once in while you might be forced to make a choice that has personal consequences.
Here's my experience. I had heard (accurately) provocative things about the witch scenes, so I thought I'd check them out (my scholarly duty as a representative of Salem State...) I hang around the basement, where they reside. Quickly I'm singled out during a bar scene and become the subject of one of the witches (a harder edged version of something I've experienced during a San Diego flamenco show once upon a time). She sits me down, whispers something in my ear, stares me in the eye (one of which is blood red because of a broken blood vessel--maybe that's why she picked me...) while one of her compatriots (who would later dance naked wearing a goat's head) sings "Is that all there is?" and--most importantly--she ties a charm around my neck. When the scene is done, she takes me by the hand and leads me to another room, where we are immediately interrupted by an actor who tears us apart. They fight and then leave.
Here's the choice. Do I follow her or the other actor? She goes upstairs with her witch friend singing a jaunty refrain of "Is that all there is?" I decide it would actually be a little creepy to tag along so I stay in the basement. My next stop is in the card playing room. The dealer immediately spots me, leads me to a chair, engages me in card game that I don't understand (staring me in the eye all the while), and when I lose, he/she removes my charm. My immediate thought: what would have happened if I had followed the witch? Would my charm have been removed in some other way or would it have been a ticket to unlock other experiences? I'll never know--unless.... some kind reader who has had the same experience can tell me what happens when you follow the alternative path... (I actually googled "sleep no more walkthrough" to no avail.)
[UPDATE: some kind Facebookers did answer the question for me. The charms are mementos, just that.]
Which brings me to my second point--how much of the show incorporates conversation about the show. While you are in the "set" you are required to wear a mask and encouraged to be silent and at certain moments you may be separated from the people you came with. But there is a bar in the center of things, with a genuine jazz trio, where you and your party can return to share your experiences. [Curiously, the band--which is really good--seems to be bothered when people talk too much]. And then there's the internet (a small but active Facebook group, for example). So this show encourages both repeat visits (it's not cheap but not prohibitively expensive) and a lot of word-of-mouth.
State-of-the-art arts marketing, really. Diane Paulus
, the new A.R.T. Artistic Director, knows what she's doing. Sleep No More
, plus the other two major shows in Shakespeare Exploded (Donkey Show
and Best of Both Worlds
) have already made this my favorite season in the history of the A.R.T. and the year is only half done!
[UPDATE: It just occurred to me that the flamenco experience referenced above occurred directly after I delivered a conference paper on Cosmology of Kyoto
(paper is available here
) titled, "Lose the Body." In a sense, with Sleep No More
's intense focus on the body (and bodily encounters), it is a direct response to the themes explored in the paper. Weird.]