As I stood silently five feet away, I watched a man strangle a pregnant woman and then place her carefully in a cradle. Thankfully, those involved in the attack were actors, but this reality does not make the violence any less unnerving.
The scene—Macbeth’s murder of Lady Macduff—is one of many haunting situations found in “Sleep No More,” the surreal theatrical experience presented at the Old Lincoln School in Brookline by British theater company Punchdrunk and the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) through Jan. 3. More than a simple show, “Sleep No More” is an enthralling multi-sensory experience, an opportunity to step into the liminal space between theater and reality and enter the terrifying, mysterious world of “Macbeth”-gone-Hitchcock.
The dozens of rooms in the Old Lincoln School have been scrupulously converted into the world of the play, complete with a 1930s-style bar and a live band that starts the show. The light is dim and the music loud—the better to suggest that one has just walked right through the screen into a Hitchcock thriller. Audience members—or, more accurately, participants—are given white full-face masks as they are called out of the bar area, and then separated from their groups into various areas of the transformed school.
What happens next is different for every person who enters this shadowy world. The audience becomes the play’s ghosts, haunting the characters as they move about the building and commit acts of violence, lust, and revenge. Participants are free to roam the various floors of the school, following cast members as they encounter them, or examining the meticulously crafted décor in each room.
There is a story being told—the tragedy of the Scottish king—but its linearity is irrelevant to the overall experience. What co-directors Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle achieve is far more compelling; they manage to evoke a mood, to create an atmosphere. As I wandered the basement—the stomping ground of the witches—I was genuinely afraid and anxious that one of these weird sisters might appear. Suddenly, the threat of Shakespeare’s witches and their sinister magic became real.
While the playwright casts a shadow over the entire production, not a word of Shakespeare’s text is ever spoken. Instead, the performers communicate stunningly through movement. A choreographed fight-dance between Macbeth (Geir Hytten) and Lady Macbeth (Sarah Dowling) was as evocative and passionate a scene as I’ve witnessed between an on-stage couple. While some scenarios leave more to be desired—the slow-motion banquet scene grows dull after a few minutes, and fails to express the awesome terror of Banquo’s ghost—the beauty is that the audience can simply just leave the room and go explore somewhere else. A genuine feat of both direction and choreography, “Sleep No More” needs no words to articulate its purpose.
What makes “Sleep No More” truly remarkable, however, is the degree to which it heightens the audience members’ senses, making them aware of every element surrounding them. Sight and sound nearly always play a role in theater, but here smell becomes crucial—the rotting dinner in the Macduffs’ dining room, the crisp trees of Birnam Wood, the wood-chip floor in the basement speakeasy. Touch also plays its part—you can rummage through desks or pick up a letter Macbeth wrote to his wife. These new sensations create a world, one that is in turn mystifying and unsettling.
Every experience in this dreamlike world is unique, and each audience member becomes the co-author of his or her own performance. In this way, “Sleep No More” isn’t an effortless show to see or understand, and an individual simply cannot see it all in one night (although the events loop twice in the course of an evening). However, this is more than worth the challenge it presents to its audience. After the masks come off, the ghosts of “Sleep No More” will continue to haunt you, changing the way you look at theater.
—Staff writer Ali R. Leskowitz can be reached at email@example.com.