Theatre Review – Become immersed in Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More (New York)

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During my recent trip to NYC, there was one other theatre experience that had been a must for a long time and that was another Punchdrunk adventure!

After enjoying, but being slightly overwhelmed by The Drowned Man, I was excited to experience Sleep No More in New York, which has already been running for over five years. A collaboration between Punchdrunk and Emursive, Sleep No More brings its audience the same unique, immersive experience that those already familiar with Punchdrunk have come to love. It’s taken me some time to write this review, as it’s essential not to give much away!

For the uninitiated, Punchdrunk shows centre around a story which is brought to life around a multi-levelled building by an ensemble of actors, through movement, dance and minimal dialogue in what is called promenade theatre. Once inside the story, the audience members are each given a mask, which must be worn at all times and there is absolutely no talking. You are also encouraged to split up from those you arrive with. This may sound daunting, but it’s absolutely the best way to experience a Punchdrunk show. It is after all a journey; during three hours inside, you wander around and decide what to observe, which actors to perhaps follow and which rooms to explore. Everyone should choose for themselves. Your time within the world created will be greatly improved by doing so.

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My souvenirs from Sleep No More

So as for Sleep No More itself? It’s hard to review in the sense that the magic of the experience is to know very little at the outset and so I am limited in what I can say! You arrive at The Mckittrick Hotel (a converted warehouse building) and on “checking in” at the door, make your way through to the bar.

The show has been devised around Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s better known and bloody stories. However, this is no ordinary Macbeth and indeed it isn’t even the only story that unfolds within the five storey building. My choices over my time at the McKittrick meant I in fact saw very little from the Macbeth side, unlike my friend who saw most of the recognisable moments from that story brought to life!

Being inside such an experience is hard to describe. It’s at times as if you are in someone else’s dream, due to the lack of set course you take, while at the same time being incredibly liberating to simply wander wherever you choose. To reach each new floor involves climbing the stairwells and as you are effectively on your feet for three hours, wear sensible, comfortable shoes! It can also get quite warm inside, so wear layers or light, cool clothing.

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Close observation of the actors by the audience at Sleep No More

I enjoyed Sleep No More much more than The Drowned Man and the key reason for that was my attitude. I was braver in my exploration of the building. I ventured in to dark rooms alone, walked closer to actors and wasn’t afraid to catch their eyes. They are after all reacting to the audience as much as to each other. My open attitude must have been clear, as I did get to experience one of the famous “one on one experiences” in which one actor took me aside, away from the other followers and in to the dark crevice between the walls. It was a unique, surreal and very intimate moment that I won’t forget and drew me further in to the mysterious atmosphere of the show.

More than anything else, the creation of the world will astonish you. The attention to detail in these shows is superb. Each floor is a different environment; you may find yourself both in indoor and outdoor locations, all perfectly brought to life. Every prop is there by design – whether the titles of books you can take off a shelf, the half written letters you can read on tables or the posters and notices on shop pinboards. One tip I will say is, if you find yourself outside the sweet shop – go in, open the jars and sample the goods! The sound/music underscoring the locations is also perfect and the large ensemble of actors work incredibly hard to bring the world to life inches from you.

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The experience begins on arrival at The McKittrick Hotel

The masks and silence also add an air of gothic creepiness to the night. They are unquestionably unnerving and having everyone wear one is so effective. They also make you bolder in my view. There are no places out of bounds here. If you want to sit on the arm of the chair of an actor as they sit there reading something, then you can. The anonymity of the masks allows you a freedom that is like no other theatrical experience and on returning to the outside world at the end of your time, it’ll have you comparing notes with friends and theatregoers as to what you each saw and did for a long time afterwards.

I’d also agree that Sleep No More, like any Punchdrunk show, is something that will inevitably benefit from repeat trips. The more time you spend there, the more you’ll see and the more the pieces of the story will start to come together. Sadly, I only had time for one visit this time, but, if it’s still there on my next trip to NYC, I’ll almost certainly go back. Once you’ve caught the Punchdrunk bug it’s inevitable!

So, if you’re going to, or are in, New York and are looking for a totally unique evening, book a ticket. If you go with others, do split up inside. It’ll mean you have so much more to share afterwards. Finally, be bold. The more you put in to Sleep No More, the more you’ll enjoy it!

Sleep No More continues at The McKittrick Hotel at 530 West 27th Street and is currently booking until 30th December 2016. Tickets are $86.50 (plus booking fee) and try to get the earliest timed slot to maximise your time inside. For more information visit the website here

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