The main draw of Sleep No More is that it is immersive drama. The show is not performed on a stage, but inside the rooms of an actual abandoned 1920s-era hotel that has been refurbished to look like it would have in its heyday--as remembered by a delusional schizophrenic. Actors get dressed, make and serve tea, use rotary phones, and bang out real letters on real typewriters as hordes of curious audience members, clad in creepy white bird-ghost masks, follow them through the hotel's sprawling maze of bedrooms, antechambers, and surreal nightmare fantasies. A patient audience member can skip the narrative entirely for an hour or so, if he or she chooses, and simply explore the hotel, learning about the story's background by examining destroyed teddy bears and labeled jars of preserved birds and such scattered about the play's magnificently, obsessively detailed sets. It feels a bit like real-life Silent Hill.
So, Shakespeare in the Dark, then? Hardly. This is a performance with no curtain, where Exeunt means nothing. When a scene completes actors will simply walk off in different directions and go about their business, and audience members individually make their own choices as to which characters to follow. So much happens at once that no individual audience member can see everything from every character's perspective the first time through (even though every scene eventually repeats, like a post-traumatic memory). Do you follow Macbeth, and watch him plan his hand-wringing treachery? Do you follow a witch, and observe the intrigue and personal anguish that motivates her manipulation of his fate? Do you follow Macduff and piece the events of the story together as he does? Or do you simply park yourself on one of the couches in the hotel lobby and watch everything that happens in there, Rear Window style? Every audience member chooses her own perspective. If you chat with fellow audience members after the show you may be surprised at how different your experience was from theirs.
LOOK AT FOUNTAIN PEN. FOLLOW BANQUO. Return to a location 30 minutes later to watch a wandering character repeat a scene you missed. Why does this experience feel so familiar?
The hordes of other audience members do have a very real presence in the space, and they lend a weird narrative distance to the scenes unfolding mere inches away. Since audience members are not permitted to speak during the performance, their importance in the story is limited almost exclusively for letting other audience members know there is something interesting to see (since people naturally form crowds around moments of spectacle). Together they form a Greek chorus of imaginary friends. Characters appear to be aware of your existence as a spectator--they may smile at you or gently push you out of their way--but you are like a mere hallucination to them, a troubling figment of their imaginations. The end result is striking, and perversely fascinating. You are an acknowledged voyeur. And yet, since there are dozens of other voyeurs all around you, there is none of the intimacy of actual voyeurism. The tale you observe belongs to neither you nor the actors, but to something in between.
Well, at least that's what I was thinking before one of the witches seduced me.
(SPOILERS BELOW THIS POINT)
So, one of the witches is a fox. A stunningly gorgeous femme fatale, whose body-fitting green dress has a neckline that dives almost down to her navel. She uses her lady-wiles to lead Banquo to his doom as part of an elaborate, totally non-Shakespearean film-noir subplot that I believe is lifted from Hitchcock's Rebecca (I wouldn't know, I haven't seen it). For the most of the first act she's a stock seductress character--sexy, mysterious, and just a little bit sinister. Second act turns that depiction on its head. But in the first act, at least, you get a pretty strong first impression of who she is.
There is a brief early scene in which a group of characters greet each other in a street area, and during this scene Banquo and the witch slip out. If you follow them instead of watching the rest of the scene, you will see them wander into a little candy shop, where they have a surreptitious acrobatic, full-contact interpretive dance makeout on the countertop. Banquo exits the candy shop and rejoins the scene, while the witch stands by a little side door and watches. I was very surprised when she caught me ogling her, and looked right into my eyes, through my ghost-bird mask, and smiled, and offered me her hand.
Was she gesturing to a character behind me? No--the other characters were busy having a little dance-fight in the middle of the street. I decided to play along, and took her hand. She led me through the door into the next room--a bedroom--and shut the door behind her. She leaned back, slowly lifting one slim, toned leg in the air like Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate, and locked the door. I was alone in the room with her.
Okay, I figured, this must be like one of those boudoir scenes in those interactive laserdisc films from the '90s. There's going to be an implied seduction, and then she's going to stage-murder me, I don't know, maybe drive an invisible knife into my chest in an artful contact-improv way, and the lights are going to go out, and then she's probably just going to lead me through a secret door or something. Like any dutiful IF player I began to EXAMINE ROOM for plot cues. Oh, hey, look. A mirror. A photograph. A pile of frilly vintage lingerie--
She traced her fingers up my forearm, and looked up at me expectantly. I gently closed my fingers around her hand, staring into her deep latte eyes. She tilted her head, slowly, meaningfully. Never breaking eye contact, she opened the door to an armoire, climbed inside, and pulled me in with her. As the door swung shut I could see the blue-masked steward--one of the guys who stand around everywhere making sure no one does anything inappropriate with the actors--disappear from view. Her grin grew into a dirty smirk just as everything went entirely dark.
With the palm of one hand she shoved me up against the wall of the armoire. She traced her fingers up my chest. I could hear her breathing.
At this point I had no idea whether or not this was still part of the act.
With practiced, rehearsed ease, she walked her fingers up my forearms, across my shoulders, up my neck. My muscles seized up, then slowly loosed from the gentle intimacy of her touch. Wasn't one of the safety rules of this kind of theater--in haunted houses and such--that the audience wasn't allowed to touch the actors, and vice versa? Instinct told me to answer her gesture, to take the next step in the dance, but I was unsure. Would it be inappropriate if I touched her? Was it inappropriate that she was touching me? Was this far enough from the script that it didn't matter? I thought about my housemate's friend, the cute redheaded girl whose phone number I had gotten at a party the night before, and felt a sobering twinge of guilt. Should I break the rules and speak, and ask her to stop? Could I bring myself to do that, if I had the opportunity?
I felt the witch's fingers brush across my chin, under the mask, and put something into my mouth. It was soft and rough, like a tongue. A gentle press on my chin clamped the object between my teeth. There was a blinding glare of light as a door in the back of the armoire opened, revealing a bloodied room with a stone slab in the center--the kind used by morticians to examine corpses. She lay down on the slab and shut her eyes, her lithe body slack and lifeless. It appeared that, narratively speaking, our little indiscretion had killed her.
A heartbeat later, perfectly on cue, Banquo burst through the door at the far side of the room, with a procession of ghost-masked observers in tow, and began inspecting the body in an artful contact-dance duet. Midway through the inspection turned into an abstract dance-representation of wild, acrobatic sex. (Or at least, I think it did? A lot of interpretive dance looks like sex to me.) I reached under my mask and removed the object from my mouth. It was a piece of soft orange candy. A reward for the voyeur.
I followed her through the next few scenes, but she made no further acknowledgement of my presence. Just another voice in the cacophony, another hallucination in the sea of imaginary faces.
The feeling I took away from that experience was one of profound strangeness. Like randomly receiving a kiss from an attractive stranger on the subway. I had, as people do for most media, seen my role within the space as an invisible observer, kept outside the story by suspension of disbelief. But she had singled me out and pulled me in. Into the wardrobe--into the Narnia where fantasy is real. She had given me a role, however minor, for however brief, pushing me through the fourth wall, transforming me from an audience member to an actor. Unbeknownst to me, I had played my own role in the story--as a ghost. A symbolic representative of the men her character had seduced, or as a memory, or something of that ilk. And it was literally my own subjective experience, as there was no one to see that bit of the performance except her and me. She had let me be the story.
About an hour later, I returned to the morgue to see the scene repeat, and she walked through the side door alone.
It looks like I was not the only audience member to receive such special treatment. Later on that night I saw Banquo's ghost pull a masked old man off to the side, his face grim--perhaps to share a terrible secret? And at another point I saw a guilt-stricken Lady Macbeth embrace a bewildered plaid-shirted hipster.
Three things came to mind once the testosterone haze cleared from my brain.
First off, this is exactly the kind of experience Janet Murray anticipated from Hamlet on the Holodeck. To the letter. Murray even cites a Voyager episode in which Captain Janeway lives out more or less exactly this scene, except with the genders reversed, and set in a Regency novel instead of Prohibition-era New York. Media theorists can stop looking for the Grail; it has been found. Sleep No More IS Murray's Holodeck. The characters are human instead of AI and the play is Macbeth instead of Hamlet, but otherwise this is exactly the kind of experience Murray wanted--immersive, interactive, with selective agency, each audience member's experience being unique and subjective. (You know how they say a great actor can make you feel like he is performing for you and you alone? In this production it is sometimes literally true.) Punchdrunk Productions has done in theater what Murray and her successors believed could only be done with computers.
This is a game changer. I may have to seriously rethink my research goals.
Second, this answer by user apeloverage for an old b3ta Question of the Week, summarizing other answers to "Have you ever paid for sex?":
So you don't have to read the entire board -
i) Group of rugby oafs/hooting fratboys have sex with prostitute while shouting. Hilarity is asserted to have ensued.
ii) Amusing reference to dysfunctional relationships as a form of 'paying for sex'.
iii) Man has sex with prostitute who really liked him. Much like that time I saw that guy at the theatre who turned out to be Macbeth, King of Scotland, and not someone playing a role in order to receive payment from me.
How much did aesvir pay for these tickets, again?
(aesvir, for the record, only ran into the Rebecca-witch once or twice, choosing instead to focus her attention on the beefcakey and occasionally naked Macduff.)
Third, all seduction is performance. After all, this isn't the first time a beautiful woman in a vintage '50s dress has pushed me against a--ahem. Moving right along.
This little episode bears some uncomfortable similarities to another form of private performance with no fourth wall--the lap dance. One participant is a real, actual human being who is using her real, actual body to pretend to be a fake human being. And not just any fake human being, but a character crafted specifically to suit the expectations and desires of the other participant. The other participant, while not always entirely passive, is playing himself.* He generally does not have the privilege of creating a character behind which he can mask his actions, but he is also spared the responsibility of entertaining the other participant. And so there are boundaries. Touching, for one, is generally not allowed--he is, after all, not touching the character's body, but the lapdancer's. The performance is an intimate but carefully preserved illusion.
In short: The actress was playing Rebecca, but I was actually seduced.
*Gendered pronouns here, since I am not sure lap dances for women actually exist. Or are the same experience, for that matter.
This is, on a personal level, extremely troubling. Mary Sue fantasies aside, one of the unspoken assumptions of fiction is that you cannot actually have any sort of intimate interaction with the characters, within the story or no. (Maybe I'd feel differently if I were one of those creeps who owns an anime girl body pillow?)
But the armoire scene is different in a lot of fundamental ways. Lap dances are degrading because they commoditize the female body--the man pays for the illusion of sexuality, and the woman receives only money in return. The woman is not consenting to have an intimate encounter with the man, she is consenting to give him the illusion of an intimate encounter. The woman does it because it's her job, and because she is obligated to do what the man says. The man has the privilege of believing the illusion.
In this case, though, the actress chose to initiate the armoire scene with me. She didn't have to--note that in a repeat of the scene she did not. I'm not going to flatter myself by claiming there was anything particularly attractive about me that led her to single me out; even if I were unusually handsome, she would have no way of seeing my face underneath my mask. I imagine I was picked because I was a young guy wandering through the set alone (aesvir had insisted we each take our own paths), who had clearly taken an interest in her performance, and she took pleasure in shattering my male gaze (and the distance the male gaze assumes). Or maybe she just thought I was cute. Doesn't matter, really. In a lap dance, the male is in control--he contractually binds the female to his expectations. But in this, she was totally in control. I didn't even have any idea what the fuck was going on.
It is startling, too, that she'd take such an exceptional risk by working that scene into her act. You'd think that part of the show would have an excess of safety precautions, with multiple wardens watching from afar to make sure everything was okay and maybe a window for other observers to look in and preserve the suspension of disbelief. (Would fit in neatly with the voyeurism theme!) It also seems against the entire idea of a mass audience to single out one audience member and do a little side performance just for him.
But, the more I think about it, the cleverer I realize it was. The erotic quality of the scene was entirely in my head--the product of her masterful acting. She wasn't just pushing me against the armoire wall to turn me on, she was keeping me at arm's length to keep some distance between her Rear Window and my throbbing Hitchcock. The gentle caresses were an in-character way of finding my mouth in the dark, so she could put the candy in. And should I be a jerk and actually try anything, the scene was short enough that if it took even a second too long the actor playing Macduff could pull open the secret door from the other side and cue the next scene. From her perspective, all she was doing was standing at arm's length from me in the dark, walking her fingers up my chest, and putting a piece of candy in my mouth, while pretending to be much closer. Not much more risque than what a circus clown or stage magician does.
And yet. The silent intimacy of the moment, the living of the fantasy, of having that hot minor character smile at you and pull you aside to wordlessly ravish you, was intense. I wanted it to be real.
I can't help but think that if the genders were reversed--with a dashing rake pulling a lone female audience member into a closet--that this scene would be construed as totally inappropriate. Even in a show that has Lady Macbeth trying in vain to wash the blood off her nude husband in a bathtub, and an interpretation of the witch's dance with a man dressed in nothing but an antelope's head fondling a topless Hecate under a strobe light. Would I have enjoyed the armoire scene nearly as much if I were gay?
Of course...she wouldn't have caught me ogling her, if I was. And I consented by taking her hand.
The narrative I constructed, in there, was my own.
Say, its only a paper moon
sailing over a cardboard sea.
But it wouldn't be make-believe
if you believed in me.