On October 11th and October 12th of 2013 I attended Sleep No More at the McKittrick Hotel. I traveled from California to attend a wedding and bought tickets for consecutive nights. I’d been given by friends select details about the performance and best practices for enhancing my participation but still felt like I knew very little. What follows is a description, as best as I can recall, of what I saw on those two nights.
First a word about my background. I studied theater at UCLA and got my B.A. from the School of Theater, Film, and Television. I was a good student and graduated magna cum laude and Dean’s List. I’m a pretty big theater nerd so I brought to bear my experience of having seen various incarnations of live performance including modern dance, interpretations of Shakespeare, and esoteric genres.
Also since for more than 10 years I’ve been a professional improviser, in the sense that I get paid to make things up for audience members who don’t know me but paid for the privilege of seeing me perform; that also impacted the way I interacted with the performers of Sleep No More. It is also likely that my profession, game designer, catalyzed me to make choices that another person in my place mightn’t have.
I arrived at the Chelsea address plenty early and the doorman at the adjacent space tried to tell me I was supposed to be having dinner before the show and ushered me and two couples into an elevator. The elevator operator was in character, but not in a campy, Tower of Terror at Disney’s California Adventure kind of way. He commented wryly on the piercing noises of the elevator’s pulley mechanisms and gave me a postcard of the hotel. It was a vintage photograph of a building on a hill. He told us it was taken last week.
When we got off on the rooftop bar, Gallows Green, a friendly man greeted us and asked me if I was waiting for Paul. I said yes, because I didn’t know if this was part of the show, and I am an improviser, and we just say yes to things. He said I could go to the bar and he’d send Paul to me. “Don’t let him skip out on me,” I said. At the bar I got a glass of water, checked in on Foursquare, and had a pee. When I left, the man in the elevator lobby seemed surprised. “Peter found you, right?” That’s how I remember it: the name switched from Paul to Peter. “No,” I said. “Hang on,” he said, “I’ll get him.”
That man came back with another man. Meanwhile, a guy standing nearby using his phone was, I think, the person who was waiting for another person – that is, the person I’d been mistaken for. I don’t know. “This guy asked me if I was waiting for someone so I just said yes,” I said.
The first guy’s eyes bugged out but Paul (or Peter) smiled. “Yeah? Well played. You here for the show? I mean, are you staying at the hotel?”
“Yes,” I said. I took the elevator back down to the ground floor and entered the hotel with 5 or 6 other people. I don’t know if I saw him again, but I have a very bad memory for faces, so I will never know. At the bag check window, we checked everything we had with us for three dollars. Then at check-in I gave my name but provided no document and they handed me a playing card: an ace.
“This is your room key,” the woman said to me. I handed it to an attendant at the end of a hallway; he punched it with a hole punch and told me to go up stairs.
I went up two dark staircases illuminated only by tea candles and then through a hallway that zigged and zagged back on itself like the maze on a family restaurant activity placemat. This is intentionally messing with me, I thought, because all the corners meant it was very dark and you could only go forward but you couldn’t tell where you were going or when you would get there.
After a couple minutes, I got to the end: the switchback corridor deposited you at the mouth of a bar where the specialty of the house was an absinthe punch which was delicious. Most people drank at least one. I checked the men’s room for clues but found none. There was a stage with instruments for a band to play: a drum set and a piano, covered. The room evoked The Great Gatsby.
A man in a tuxedo took the stage and purred into the microphone that anyone with an ace should join him by the side of the stage. He ushered a group of about 16 of us behind a curtain and that’s when he and two other men in tuxedos handed out white masks that covered the entire top part of the face. “Put these on,” Sebastian told us, “and make it looser or tighter with the plastic thingamabobber in the back. Now my lovelies, there will be no talking. Goodbye.” And he and another man beckoned us through another curtained door. This door, I could tell, was the elevator that I’d been advised to be the last person to board. I had not been told about the masks, but I was told that it was good to be the first person off the elevator.
As we traveled up, the man in the elevator repeated that there was to be no talking in the hotel, and no cameras or phones. He said the hotel was 5 stories tall, and you could always return to the bar on the 2nd floor. He advised us that black-masked characters were there, not to advise us, but to guide us. “Things are not always what they seem at the McKittrick Hotel,” he said, and added, “Fortune favors the bold.”
That was when the elevator stopped. I was let off the elevator, and I felt the other white masks behind me move but when I turned, all I saw was the elevator door closing and the man in tuxedo holding his arm out to bar the other passengers from disembarking. And then I was alone in the McKittrick Hotel: the first person to enter the performance space of Sleep No More.
My first impressions were that the light was very low, the ambient music on the floor was imbued with portent and dread, and there were many rooms to explore. I took off running, knowing that there was action somewhere and not wanting to miss anything. In very short order, it became clear that “not wanting to miss anything” was an invalid tactic: every room was a complete environmental art piece of its own, even if no actors were present. The floor where the elevator let me off looked like a hospital; there was a room with many bathtubs, and another room with many infirmary beds. I entered a room that looked like an office with a desk and telephone. I picked up the phone and wanted to say “hello” but remembered the admonishment not to speak. There was no dial tone. The papers on the desk let me know that I was in St. James infirmary. The room was also decorated with a half-dozen strings stretching from floor to ceiling, each one with several pages from books hanging off it, like how a clothesline would look if you were parallel to the ground. Each page also had a maze of negative space where someone had cut a zig-zag line with an Exacto knife tracing a switchback path like the one I walked in the dark after coat check. I left the office and continued exploring.
In the room with the tubs, I now saw a man in formal evening wear, jacket removed, putting some clothes into the tub. Since I’d been advised that the show was, in many ways, a retelling of the MacBeth story, I assumed that this ritual was related to the title character, who murders a lot of people and gets blood all over himself in the process. Getting the blood out of his clothes, and his hands, becomes something of a fixation for himself and his wife, and ultimately is part of what drives Lady MacBeth mad. There were only two of us in the room, so I stood close to the man washing the clothes and watched his slow deliberate movements, but then I set off to explore more.
Just across a dark hallway from the room with the bathtubs was a room much larger than any I’d seen up until now. This room was The Woods. Leafless trees sprouted from the floor, dotted along a sort of walkway that made the room a maze. Moonlight shone from overhead, and the sound of nightlife in the woods and gusty gales filled the space. It was about now that I first recognized how prominent and how astonishing the sound design was in the entire space. Over the course of seeing the show twice, I came to admire the use of recorded, period 1940’s-era popular music blended with original sound and operatic instrumental music, rising and falling along with the action in every tableau, seemingly timed with great precision. Of course the use of sound and music, along with the lights, go a great distance in creating a fully enveloping experience design, and Sleep No More did this with great skill.
In the corner of the woods room was a wooden hut with a door and a window. I moved to open the door, but a guide in a black mask extended an arm to block my way: not allowed. I left the woods.
Finding my way to a stairwell, I walked down one flight. Now instead of a hospital with the woods outside, the fourth floor resembled a main street in a small town. There was a candy shop, complete with three shelves and jars full of different candies; a commenter on Foursquare said the candy tasted about 80 years old, but I ate a red Swedish fish and it tasted good to me. With the hallway running down the middle of the floor acting sort of like the street, on either side there were shops: a tailor, a mortuary, a taxidermist’s, with big plate glass windows looking out. I also found a detective agency, and when I entered, a man – the detective, I presume – was in the back, looking at photographs he’d developed himself and hung up on a string. He passed through a curtain into the front office and there were a young woman and a small group of white masks, who must have followed her there. Since one way to enjoy seeing Sleep No More is to pick an actor and follow him, it’s not uncommon to find yourself part of a group of 30 chasing someone up or down a flight of stairs, or through a corridor. Of course, like with birdwatchers who lust after rarely-seen animals, another school of thought might be that an actor who isn’t being followed by anyone is a more appealing person to follow.
This was my first time seeing two actors interact with each other. The detective had an open file on his desk with a photograph of a woman. The lady who was in his office placed a second, identical photograph next to it. This caused the detective to grab her wrist and look at her arm, her hand, and the back of her neck: as if examining her for blemishes or identifying marks or features. The two of them shared a passionate kiss and she crossed to the door as if to leave, but they kissed once more before she fled.
Watching this interaction was the first time I suspected that Sleep No More was wordless. And it is – nearly.
Simultaneous with the mystery woman’s exit, another man in evening clothes, also sans jacket, was walking up the main street, in plain view of everyone who could see him through the plate glass windows. He caused quite a commotion, and many white masks came out to see what was going on: he was breathing heavily and groaning and seemed to be having some kind of fit. Many of us followed him into a room that was a bar made out of cardboard boxes. There was a pool table, and the groaning man collapsed onto it and his body spasmed in a fit that was a bit like dance and a bit like combat, though without an adversary. He twitched and thrashed in a series of movements that was violent but also beautiful. There were more men in tuxedos in the bar, sitting around the table. The mystery woman was there too – she’d beaten me and the crowd to the bar – but she left shortly after the groaning man fell onto the pool table.
I left too because I’d been told about another room I should look for, accessible from (or near) the cardboard bar. I made my way down a hallway lined with corrugated metal, as I’d been told to, and found another bar, this one with much more wide open space and a stage with a setup much like the one in the bar I’d entered on the 2nd floor of the McKittrick, before the performance began. A very intense scene takes place here, I’d been told, and pretty soon it started.
The scene was scored with contemporary music: when it ramped up, it was like a rave. There were three woman, a short woman in a green dress, a slim bald woman, and a red-haired woman in a flowy red dress who sat at a table far removed from the main action, and never got up. The women danced for the men, and I realized that this is the scene from MacBeth where the witches – “three weird sisters” – make their prophesies that catalyze the play’s main, tragic action. One woman took off the top of the short dress and she danced, breasts exposed, to the rave music. There was lots of haze in the room and suddenly green laser lights and a strobe. The man I’d seen soaking clothes – MacBeth, I now felt certain – took in all the crazy action, including the appearance of a fully naked man with a horse’s head on. As if accepting his fate, MacBeth prepared to fellate the naked horse man. The lights blacked out briefly, and when they came back on, MacBeth was holding a bloody baby.
There was a lot to take in; I don’t remember the precise order of events, but the rave/orgy ended and the characters left separately; each time somebody left, white masks would follow, but I wanted to know more about the red-haired woman. She, me, and the short woman, still topless, were the only ones left. The short woman performed a very acrobatic dance behind and on the bar; she was wet, and as she thrashed her head around, she splashed water. The woman in red watched approvingly from her table. If I weren’t here, I thought, they’d still be doing this for no one. Unfortunately, the woman in red exited somewhere I wasn’t allowed to follow: a black mask barred my way. I went off to explore other floors.
The bottommost floor contained almost nothing except an enormous open floor: a dance floor with a stage. Up on the stage, a long banquet table was set. All around were Christmas trees on wheels. The space was extremely dark with almost no light except for the decorative bulbs on the Christmas trees. When I arrived, MacBeth was there; I stayed close to him as he walked closer to a bright light coming from up above. I was close enough to him, that he turned and grasped me by the arm, and this was the first time I’d heard anyone speak since I entered the hotel. “I had to kill him,” MacBeth hissed to me, and spoke some more lines from Shakespeare, concluding with, “Get thee gone.”
One of the three sisters, the bald one, arrived and began moving the Christmas trees, wheeling them to the perimeter of the room and clearing the dance floor. I followed her closely too: my experience as an improviser helped me here as it did throughout, giving me the courage to thrust myself into the action without fear. As she went about her tasks, she stopped and allowed her eyes to rest on me. She made the choice to notice me. She took me by the hand and, with her index finger, slowly and deliberately traced the line in my palm between my thumb and forefinger, followed the arc to my wrist, and then made two more lines in my palm with her finger. Then she took my hand in hers, moved my other hand to my waist, and we danced to the music that was now filling the space. She smiled at me kindly before departing.
Soon there was more light, the music grew louder, and many more guests appeared in formal wear. Taking off their coats as they entered, they coupled and performed a wonderful, celebratory dance. There were conspiratorial looks, but for the most part, they were enjoying a party. Later, in this same room, there would be a banquet: after some further exploring, I followed Lady MacBeth as she and MacBeth returned, and I with them. Entering the banquet room later in the night, I saw several things that surprised me: one, the room was full of white masks, the biggest group of people I’d seen yet. This was attributable to my second discovery, namely that eight characters were seated onstage at the table, the largest aggregation of actors I’d seen yet. Among the characters was a pregnant woman I hadn’t seen up until now, so that surprised me too: that someone had eluded me this entire time. Lord and Lady MacBeth took their place at the banquet, which turned into something like another orgy as characters sloshed their wine glasses and kissed each other at the table, all in extremely slow motion. The sound slowed down too.
This banquet marked the end of the first act; the main action of the play, I’d been told, looped three times, allowing guests to see different things at different times. For the next two hours or so, I went up and down stairs and explored more rooms and followed more actors. I saw the mystery woman one more time; she wrote a note with a pencil and tucked into a blotter on the detective’s desk. Then the phone rang; she answered it, whispered inaudibly, and left. I though this was another commendable example of the skill of the hidden designers: somebody cued that phone to ring at just the right time. After she left, I removed the note and read it: in faint pencil lead, she’d written a short poem about a seed growing into a tree. This was one of many letters I found around the hotel: in the MacBeth master bedroom on the third floor – the same floor with the graveyard, just outside the master, and rather like the woods but with bombed out brick walls in place of trees – multiple copies of the same letter written by MacBeth, pledging eternal devotion to his wife, were scattered around the bathtub that was in the center of the floor. There was a letter from Lady MacBeth to the queen, thanking her for the necklace and promising to wear it always: this I found in the room that was the hotel check-in desk. Once, I happened to be exiting the cardboard bar when MacBeth was entering it; he carried a small cardboard box, which he vouchsafed in a crevasse in the wall as he walked in the door. A group of white masks followed him. I reached for the small box; it contained a piece of red yarn and a note. We have her, it said.
I returned to St James infirmary and saw Lady MacBeth strip naked and get in the bath; in the third act, she took a bath in the master bedroom as well. Also on the hospital floor, later in the night, I saw that someone had placed a dozen stones into one of the beds and pulled the covers up over them.
Aside from MacBeth’s whispers, no one else spoke: Sleep No More is, truly, dance theater. Characters rush at each other and push each other away, all with beautiful violence: the dances are combative and at times gravity-defying. Men threw men and women against walls, men wracked with pain climbed up walls to the ceiling, and everyone was always all over all the furniture. I can’t imagine how exhausting the piece must be to perform: having to do many of those dances three times, to say nothing of the endlessly changing environment. There were times where black masks would keep us from getting too close to the bodies whirling in space, but other times there was no guide at all, and if a whipping body came close to you, you’d better move quick to avoid getting a boot to the head.
Nearly as I could tell, the main action of the show moved roughly from the top to the bottom; there were times where black masks stood in the stairwell, keeping you from climbing to the next floor up, as if to say, There’s nothing to see here. With the banquet, in which Banquo’s ghost appears in the traditional Shakespeare version, nearly all the characters were on the bottom floor three times during the show. The second time, I saw a maiden of some kind eating jellied toast presented to her by another servant character, a sour-faced older woman. But when the play ends, at the third banquet, there is no reason to be anywhere else. Instead of an orgy, this time the action ends with the characters leaving the table at the stage and dispersing into the crowd, except for MacBeth, who stands front and center as a noose, previously hidden, descends from the rafters. A tuxedoed man fixes it around his neck, and MacBeth is hanged over our very heads. This is an old bit of theatrical hokum, but it is used to good effect here, and though I saw the hanging twice from different angles, I could never spot the actor being braced at his waist, which is, I believe, how the stunt is accomplished. A blackout. The end of the action. There is no curtain call; rather, the actors all grab the nearest white mask, escort them to the lounge we all started in on the second floor, remove their masks, and give them a kiss and perhaps a few words. I was up on the balcony so I did not get an escort; I just left, ushered by the black masks. The band is playing and there are more absinthe punches for sale, but I collected my things from coat check and departed minutes after the show ended.
I left knowing I’d seen something really special. If that had been the end of my experience with Sleep No More, I would still have told people that it lived up to my (high) expectations and that the show was absolutely worth a visit. But I got a second chance at it, and I had an agenda.
My game plan had been to try to see what I believed to be the main action the first time, and try to see some of the more esoteric nooks and crannies the second time around, if necessary. It also seemed to me that, if I had been successful at following the “main action,” whatever that might be, that it favored the men: I’d seen a lot of men, and many of them had been difficult for me to tell apart. (I have very poor facial recognition skills, usually relying on things like clothes, glasses, and hair to identify people; none of these were very helpful in differentiating unfamiliar men, all wearing tuxedoes, in hazy rooms with low lighting.) I’d seen MacBeth kill Banquo in the cardboard bar, bludgeoning him with a brick, and I’d seen fights and plots with the men. But I’d seen almost nothing of the pregnant woman, and wanted to know how she fit into the story. And the mystery woman: she didn’t seem to appear very often for the second half of the night. And I also wanted to know what happened in the woods. I don’t know if there is action in every single room – some rooms more than others, obviously – but there had to be some reason for the woods to be there and I wanted to know what it was. Woods and the women: that was my agenda for Sleep No More night 2.
I entered the hotel closer to 7:30 PM and my room key was an 8. Though they were taking 4s, a man with a tuxedo saw that I was eager. “Are you ready?” he said and I nodded. He allowed me behind the curtain. Masks distributed, instructions, thingamabobber: everything was about the same, except the starting bar was much more crowded. Once more I boarded the elevator last; once more I left first and was allowed on my own, only this time I turned to the elevator as the door closed and extended a hand toward my fellow passengers, as if to say, “Noooooooooo.” Just for fun.
I quickly ran down the stairs and found to my surprise that the first banquet was underway. Were we this far into the story already? Another surprise followed quickly: a woman dressed as a nurse stood in the dark, on the dance floor, watching the action on the stage along with all the white masks, but seemingly entirely unnoticed by all of them. I thought, You mean there was a nurse here all night last night and I never saw her once? Since I’d determined to see more of the women this time, I decided to follow her and, once she moved, I followed closely on her heels. And when I say close, if I followed you on a city street as closely as I followed the actors in Sleep No More, you would call the police immediately. But this isn’t a city street. I employed a technique my friend dubbed “silverfishing”: think of a bad dad at Disneyland, racing ahead of his family, bobbing and weaving through the crowd and sometimes turning sideways to gain the speed advantage. That was me. Only in a dark hotel full of people wearing masks.
Anyway, that nurse. She was not easy to follow: she went up flights of stairs, across floors, and then down stairs again, as if trying to lose anyone who might follow her. Immediately after the banquet, she went all the way to the top of the hotel, into the room I’d picked up the phone first thing after getting off the elevator. I saw she had a key around her neck. “I hope I get to see what it unlocks,” I thought, and I didn’t have to wait long: she took a locked box out of a desk drawer. Every drawer of every desk, as well as every shelf in every room, was bedecked with appropriately curious knickknacks. I don’t know what happens if an audience member tampers with an important prop, but it wouldn’t be hard. The nurse opened the box, took out a much-abused book and an Xacto knife. Slowly, deliberately, meticulously, she cut a zig-zag path out of the page and cut the page out of the book. She returned the book and knife to the box, locked it, and returned it to the drawer. By now, more white masks had found us in the office: it seemed like there were more people overall on the second night, and we followed her down stairs and up – she stopped at the MacBeth master bedroom long enough to lay out the clothes that Lady MacBeth would wear later, after emerging from the bath - until she arrived at the woods.
The entrance to the woods were closed off with a locked gate that I did not remember seeing the night before. The nurse scampered between the bars and deeper into the woods, in the direction of the hut and a bright light. My body was too big to follow her. Another white mask, a small woman, pushed past me and passed easily through the same opening. Me and several other white masks made efforts to climb the gate, but then another man found a hole between the trees close to the floor but big enough to climb through, and we pursued the nurse. Following the turning paths of the woods, which resembled the lines she’d cut out of the page, we found the nurse at the hut I’d been prohibited from entering the night before. Right when we arrived, the door to the hut was open. Another nurse was inside the hut. Two nurses! There were two nurses in the show I never saw on the first night. She welcomed an audience member into the hut and the door closed behind them. I felt regret that it wasn’t me. We attempted to peer into the hut to see what was going on; a short time later, the first nurse appeared and the audience member emerged. The first nurse sat on the lap of the nurse who dwelt in the hut, and they rocked on a rocking chair for a while. I decided I’d seen enough of the nurse and, glad I’d gotten to see at least one thing happen in the woods, I branched off.
It wasn’t hard to find the mystery woman; it was still early in the second run of the action, and I’d found her early in the story on the floor with the shops. Once more I saw her kiss the detective, only this was a different actress playing the woman. I followed her to the bar made of corrugated cardboard, where she raced off into the night after the man convulsed on the pool table.
A crowd of other white masks gathered as the mysterious woman slowly, meticulously, deliberately set about the task of slicing a thin strip from a book – the Bible I think – and wrapping it around a piece of rice until it was a small speck. She found a locket, clasped the speck inside, and then cut a length of red thread off a bobbin. All the actors I saw handling props did so with this solemnity and minute detail, and so it was that she knotted the locket, speck enclosed, on the thread.
She fled the tailor’s shop and shed several whitemasks in the hallway representing the main street. So much action was gathering there now that audience members less purpose-driven than I jumped to follow other actors, perhaps fearing more slow-paced knot tying in this woman’s future. Meaning that when I followed her to the only residency on the block, her home, with the sitting room in the front and the bedroom behind a door that was locked more often than it was open on my visits the night before, it was just us, and I’d been following her for some time.
My friend told me that if an actor offers you a hand, you should take it. The woman stopped by the table room. We were the only ones there, I’m pretty sure. She looked not in my direction but at me. She held my gaze and extended her hand. I took it quickly, eagerly. With her other hand, she opened the door to her bedroom and pulled me inside.
I felt the same adrenaline-fueled eagerness that I always have when a pretty woman invites me into her bedroom and closes the door. That this was only a simulation of that moment mattered not at all. I experienced it in every sensory way as if it was a real intimate encounter. This was an entirely new kind of theater.
It got more real. She pushed me into her closet, a standing wardrobe. She lifted off my mask and hung it on a peg. Inches divided us. She kept my gaze and I kept hers. She spoke.
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.”
I recognized these as the opening sentences to the novel Rebecca, upon which the Hitchcock film is based.
“There was Manderly, our Manderly, secretive and silent as it had always been, the grey stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the mullioned windows reflecting the green lawns and the terrace. Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, not the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand.”
My background as an actor and improviser had prepared me to be ready to receive the performance this woman was giving me. It was hard to focus on her words because of the excitement buzzing in my head. Thoughts of What’s going to happen next? obscured what was happening currently. But I focused on the slight drawl of her words, the slur and lilt of the speech and the moistness of her unvoiced plosives. She raised her hands and placed the locket on the red thread around my neck. Then she leaned forward and kissed me on the side of my face. Hands still raised, she returned my mask to my face.
“Wear this,” she said, touching the locket. “It will keep you safe.” And with force but not roughly, she pushed me through the secret passage against the rear wardrobe wall. I emerged in the back room of the butcher shop. I raced out to the street and in through the front door of the house, but the bedroom I’d just been pushed out of was locked. It remained that way for the rest of the performance, even when I returned with only minutes left before the hanging. That was the last I ever saw of the mysterious woman.
I’m not going to lie, I was pretty happy right then. I’d had a memorable experience at the play (I later learned these are called 1:1s), and had a keepsake to show for it. I wanted to know more about the woman with the red hair, so I returned to the scene where the orgy with the three weird sisters took place and made another interesting discovery: this important scene, that I’d heard about from multiple sources, is being observed by a character who is not in it – that is, not at first glance. The King, Duncan, is standing at the door spying on the depravity inside. I believed him to be Duncan based on his clothes and his mien, and the other actors’ behavior toward him – including a murder I saw on the first night. MacBeth kills Duncan, king, so I figured I had that right.
Well the orgy just sent the king into a tizzy, and he ran back to the tailor shop where I’d already been not long before. He took out the same damn Bible and took some precautions of the voodoo variety: wrapping a dead crow and murmuring incantations, sprinkling a powder of some protective property around the door frame to prevent evildoers’ ingress. I stayed with him a while and took off looking for the pregnant woman.
By now, it was near the end of the second cycle of action so everyone was at the banquet. It was easy enough to follow the pregnant woman, whom I now believe to be Lady MacDuff based on blog posts I’ve read, to the lobby area of the hotel, half a flight up from the banquet hall.
During this scene, I saw a violent dance sequence between Lady MacDuff and another actor – one in which her character dies. Her husband finds her and mourns her in silent agony and through dance. And then the action loops and Lady MacDuff, alone now, wakes up as though from a deep sleep. She picks up a suitcase and begins her action anew, but this time with me following.
She went to a part of the hotel that I had not visited much at all before, which explains why I hadn’t seen much of her. There are actual bathrooms the audience can use, but also a guest room where Lady MacBeth set down her suitcase, took off her clothes, put on her nighttime clothes, and set out her fancy evening wear. Her husband came and joined her, and they did a few dances; one of happiness and celebration and, later, in a hotel lounge, in a small crevasse above the mantel and close to the ceiling, a more bombastic back-and-forth dance. She had some compulsive behaviors she kept repeating that her husband tried to prevent. When they got dressed to go to the ball, I felt content about seeing more of this character who I’d missed before.
I ran around the hotel looking for more action I hadn’t seen before. Once, when I was running in an elevator lobby, I rounded a corner and encountered the bald weird sister with a big group behind her. She strode right up to me like she’d been waiting for me and held my face with her hand, pressing me back against the wall. I held my position there, frozen. She took off, taking her entourage with her.
The performance drew to a close and I returned to the woods one more time. A few white masks were there, but the running nurse was nowhere to be seen. There was no guarantee the door to the hut would open before the show ended. The other white masks left. I stayed. Three minutes passed, then three more. I thought, Either I will go into the hut with the seated nurse or I will spend ten minutes in this environmental area of the show and that will have been my experience. More white masks arrived. They left. After about ten minutes, the door opened and a nurse invited me in. She took off my mask and said, “That’s better,” and for the second time that night I was in the company of an actor performing a private piece of theater meant only for me.
She made me a cup of tea and through gestures I told her that I wanted milk and a little sugar. She fed me the tea with a spoon, cupping her other hand to prevent any drips. There were none. Then she sat in a chair and took my hand in hers. She traced on my palm the same two intersecting arcs that the bald weird sister had done with her finger one night before. There are many fine details in Sleep No More that many audience members will never have the chance to appreciate.
The nurse sat down, looked at me with gimlet eyes that were still kind, and she spoke.
“Once upon a time, there was a poor child,
With no father and no mother,
And everything was dead,
And no one was left in the whole world.
Everything was dead.
And the child went and searched day and night,
And since nobody was left on the earth,
He wanted to go up in to the heavens,
And the moon was looking at him so friendly,
And when he finally got to the moon,
The moon was a piece of rotten wood.
And then he went to the sun,
And when he got there,
The sun was a wilted sunflower.
And when he got to the stars,
They were little golden flies, stuck up there like the shrike sticks among the black thorn.
And when he wanted to go back down to Earth,
The Earth was an overturned piss-pot, And he was all alone.
And he sat down and he cried.
And he is there to this day.
Though less well-known, I recognized this text also. It is from a German folk tale called Woyzek, only the reason that I know it is because it is a spoken-word piece on a Tom Waits B-sides compilation. Waits is my favorite music artist, living or dead, and has been since I was a sophomore in high school. There are few people who have been more influential on me than Waits. I thought maybe many people would recognize this text. It turns out it is not well known, and only widely known because of Tom Waits. And I was alone in a hut with an actor reciting this text for me alone. I’ve written nearly 7000 words so far and I don’t have any words to describe that, except to say it happened.
The nurse stiffened in her chair and turned as pale as her bleached, stiff cap. She rose, opened the door, and ushered me out so the second nurse could enter. After going to see if I could visit with my mysterious, locket-distributing woman again but failing, I watched MacBeth get hanged one final time before exiting the McKittrick Hotel, probably forever.
It’s now been a month since I saw these shows. Already many parts have blurred in my memory, but the sensation and my reactions and many of the important moments will stay in my memory a long time. In the process of writing this, I’ve discovered many more have written of their experiences, though I haven’t found any that go into as much details as this one. If you can send me any, I’d like very much to read them. Also, if you’ve read this long I’ll certainly answer any questions you might have.