I’ve just returned from a trip to the east coast US.  The main purpose of the visit was to attend  Visible Evidence http://www.visibleevidence.org/, an annual perambulatory international conference on documentary and non-fiction media.  This year our host was New York University (NYU) and there was the usual rich variety of papers, workshops, screenings and presentations from theorists, practitioners and educators.

While I was in the city, I took the opportunity to see Punchdrunk’s production of Sleep No More (http://sleepnomorenyc.com/), a site-specific piece of theatre/ performance that’s running in the old, vast McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea.  The piece heavily references Shakespeare’s Macbeth with some strong allusions to Hitchcock (Jimmy Stewart’s search for Madeleine/ Carlotta in Vertigo, for example, takes him to the McKittrick hotel in San Francisco) and is an extraordinarily immersive, dynamic experience.  The portal to the performance is a 1930’s era bar, where the audience sips cocktails before donning white masks and being whisked away in an elevator, from which we were ejected onto different floors of the hotel.  We were instructed not to remove our masks, not to speak and advised that ‘fortune favours the brave’ before being let loose to roam the mysterious hotel in which a half-dozen performers enact a series of intertwining, choreographed and mostly silent narratives, seemingly oblivious to us interlopers.

Sleep No More is described as an ‘individual experience’ as you are free to interact with the space and the performances taking place however you choose.  I opted to stick close to one actor (once I figured out he was ‘Macbeth’), which involved much dashing up and down narrow staircases and through the spaces of the McKittrick, often in a big crowd of other ‘spectators’, as he traversed through a ballroom scene, a witches’ coven-turned-ritual accompanied by pounding techno and strobe lighting, some dramatic contretemps with a feisty female counterpart (Lady Macbeth?), a moment of crisis amongst fir trees (Birnam Wood?), ending in a dramatic ‘Last Supper’ style finale.  There are a multitude of potential experiences of Sleep No More, depending on which actor(s) you follow, whether you are one of the lucky few to experience one of the ‘one-on-ones’ interspersed throughout the show, or whether you choose to avoid the action and wander the many spaces of the hotel.

One common experience, however, is the sense of voyeurism and this is another way Sleep No More references the films of Hitchcock.  As you stand watching the performers you cannot ignore the anonymised masked faces of your fellow spectators, crowding round to get a glimpse of the action.  The audience and actors share the same space, yet we are at once visible and invisible in a way that challenges the conventional theatrical/ cinematic experience of viewing from a distance through the proscenium arch of the stage/ screen.

I hear rumours the producers are looking for a suitable location to bring the show to London, but if you happen to be in New York City I recommend a visit to the McKittrick hotel, just don’t forget a pair of comfortable shoes.  And your sense of adventure.

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