Sleep No More

“For Hitchcock, the spectator must also be inscribed in the fabric of relations. Hence, the director’s version of suspense which is based on the coefficient to involve, to implicate” (Ishii-Gonzalez 135).

Last week I entered an abandoned hotel wearing a white pointed mask surrounded by other bodies in the same face-erasing masks. I explored a taxidermist’s office, wandered through a hedge maze, read through cryptic typed letters, chased a wailing Lady Macbeth through her bedroom and witnessed a cold Mrs. Danvers plotting poisonous tricks. Each move I made through the space changed my unfolding experience, as well as the unfurling shape of the performance I was taking part in. Through it all, I thought of Deleuze’s time-image and his reading of Alfred Hitchcock’s work.

Sleep No More is an immersive theater performance in a huge space in Chelsea. Based   loosely on Macbeth and Hitchcock’s Rebecca, there are multiple floors filled with over 100 rooms and environments that spectators in masks are encouraged to explore independently, indoor and outdoor, tiny and cavernous. Each room is full, replete with objects that are there to be touched, explored, opened, and moved around by spectators. The actors perform scenes on loops that overlap and intersect differently, even as they repeat.

You might find yourself in a room where a man in a lab coat silently cuts words from a book with a blade and hangs them from the ceiling. Suddenly, a man runs by and you run with him down three flights of stairs into another scene, watch a murder or a seduction. The assembled disconnected spaces, empty and full, are in the realm of Deleuze’s time-image. Minute objects and moments take on meanings that don’t lead to. The structure of the performance–though structured–makes it impossible to see the “whole thing,” and while there is surely a story, it is not one that can be followed, and or be performed the same way. The spectators are as ghostly presences to the actors, who react to their presence and their effects on the objects surrounding but not to them as human individuals. Or they might lead you into a hidden room for an individual interaction, as happened to a friend of mine.

There are moments of tension, excitement, action, boredom, banality, solitude. The in-between moments of emptiness and boredom become huge. I found myself alone in an old hospital wing, waiting for  “something to happen,” and then realizing, I was what was happening in the space. I spent what felt like hours touching strange medical implements, or writing with a quill–moving the objects in the space, altering it. When trying to get to a different part, I kept ending up in the same places, with the anxiety that I was missing “it” and then what could have been minutes or days later, found myself in a strange new land through doors I don’t remember walking through. David Lynchland, perception and exteriors riding a mobius strip.

There are no spoken words, either from actors or participants, and this, combined with the fragmentary, ever-changing experience of the performance subverts traditional theater by subordinating plot and meaning to situation and presence. Here, the suspense is less about what is going to happen in the sense of a building of successive actions that narrow the field of possibilities until one finally guesses the only possible outcome. Each moment is virtual, each scene is fragmentary, and enters into a network of relations with what came before and after, also changed by the fleeting now.

The always missing creates a heightened awareness of what is, and what is unknowable. Plot dissolves into situation. Time changes, the space becomes a shot in depth. Spectators attune their own movements to a gliding one, others try and interrupt the actions of the actors, or simply sit alone without moving, all changing the perpetual performance and those to come.

This is not to fit this performance tidily into a theoretical box, or impose a reading onto the experience. It is not radically political or community-building, and does not purport to be. I felt the presence of cinema’s time-image in this performance, another level of my own experience of this shifting one.


2 Responses to “Sleep No More”

  1. Thanks for posting, Ruchi. I heard about ‘Sleep No More’ from a friend who saw it in Boston and I thought it sounded amazing — and relevant to what we’re reading/discussing. It’s interesting that all audience members are masked, as though placing them in the role of anonymous camera-eye — and the fact that the performance (theatrical event? happening?) lacks dialogue is also quite a feat.

    In looking through the NYT interactive (the level of prop detail and cinematic sense of framing for each set piece is incredible), I’m struck by what the creators have to say about their work and what you said concerning the fact that one can “miss” the major plot scenes, but that in the end, it doesn’t matter to the experience. I’m left wondering what the creators hoped to achieve with the work — other than being a unique, sensational experience with open-ended applications to its source material (MacBeth, Hitchcock, noir).

    From your description: “Each moment is virtual, each scene is fragmentary, and enters into a network of relations with what came before and after, also changed by the fleeting now….Plot dissolves into situation. Time changes, the space becomes a shot in depth…” — it sounds like the audience constructs the experience from within, and that it’s possible a viewer (participant?) could stay in one room during the whole performance, examining the contents of one draw of feathers or jar of candy. Could those experiences then be considered a definitive exposure to the essence of “Sleep No More”? In other words, I’m interested to know what is the relation between audience agency and this particular, interactive, stylized reading of Macbeth (whatever that may be) — and why it had to unfold in this way.

    In any case, the show sounds fascinating; glad you were able to share it with us.

  2. It’s a good question, one I also had. I surely don’t have an answer. One thing that occurred to me as I was experiencing the performance was that Rebecca is a story that revolves around the unseen force of someone who is never there in the present. Macbeth too is a story of unseen or even supernatural forces: guilt, fate, ghosts, etc. What remains unseen interacts with what is seen, and each force has the potential to alter and change the changing outcomes. The performance is within the field of the virtual.

    Also, reading the Hansen book this week–though he is speaking about new media art and not a performance such as this–got me thinking about the reaffirmation of embodied perception. This performance is created through the movement of bodies, of both performers and spectators (these roles are also fluid), foregrounding the central role of the body in the creation of meaning.

    At any rate, you should definitely go, if only for the candy room 🙂

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