Last Sunday, I rounded out my weekend by going to see Sleep No More, a performance by London’s Punchdrunk loosely based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It takes place at the fictional McKittrick Hotel, a multi-floored warehouse which once housed a popular Chelsea club scene.
Sleep No More is probably best experienced having very little prior knowledge about what’s in store, so without giving too much away, the experience begins with you and your fellow attendees being whisked into an elevator where an actor reads you the “rules” of the evening;
1. Don't take off your mask
2. Don't talk once inside
3. The McKittrick is best experienced alone, handholding is not supported
4. If it all gets to be “a bit too much,” go up to the second floor bar.
You are then handed a thick white Venetian mask, directed into the incredibly detailed 1920s bar (where you are allowed to talk and encouraged to remove your mask) before setting out to explore six floors of freak.
Sleep No More is an interesting case study on how people masked in anonymity handle both freedom and authority. You know there’s a performance going on, but you’re part of the performance, integral to the performance even as you meander through the hotel. There were guests, like myself, who took the tactile experience and ran with it. If I used Duncan’s pen and spun around in a desk chair, no one was going to look twice. If I submerged my hands into dirty bath water, no one was going to stop me. No one was even going to know it was me, unless they recognized my flares and striped T-shirt, which is a likely possibility.
There was a gauzy sheik guarded by a cast member which patrons were told (through the universal X hand gesture and vigorous horizontal head shake) that they couldn't enter. I wasn't willing to accept this. If I didn’t have words to reason with and ask WHY it was that I couldn’t go in — I was going to push the physical limit. I tried to climb through the curtained window. The answer was again, no. But in a performance, does no actually mean no? Does anyone have any real authority? Maybe this is why kids can be such general pains in the ass — they don't have the fullness of words to challenge authority and therefore they go to extreme measures, like laying like rag dolls on the floor or refusing to bend their legs. Am I a child or does Sleep No More turn some of us into children? Children on Halloween, no less.
I will freely admit that I was buzzed going into the experience, but then again I’m sure I wasn’t alone; the whole performance is rooted in alcohol and both begins and ends in a bar. Thinking about it in the sober days after, I realized that maybe this is just how I move through the world. I don’t mean that I move through the world as a drunken deviant, but maybe if I see a bed, I’m going to want to jump on it. If I’m masked and in a dark room, I sure as hell am just going to go for it. I was never told not to. And I'm sure I got some questionable looks from some (impossible to know for sure, again, masks), and I KNOW I got some questionable looks from the person I was with: "this is why I could never date you, you destroy things."
But in reality I adhered to all the rules. I didn’t speak. I didn’t remove my mask. I didn’t use my phone. I didn’t observe one person breaking any of the “rules” and it would’ve been so easy to do so. What I observed was a classic example of Kantian Ethics where people react with disdain to others who violate societal rules that have been unanimously agreed upon since they are in the best interest of all. So we didn’t take off our masks, and we didn’t speak or hold hands. We understood that in order to facilitate the best experience for everyone we couldn’t do these things, and because nothing else had been deemed OFF limits, every other action (to me at least) was extremely on limits. Whether we chose to exercise our new found freedom was for each person to decide.
As weird of an experience as Sleep No More is (it is unlike anything I've ever seen or done before and I’d recommend you see for yourself), my favorite part was observing the other audience members. Some walk around tentatively as if they’re in the Guggenheim. I’d argue that those people have the least fulfilling experience, miss the most details, leave early. I’m sure many people steal a relic, and others cause general contained chaos. If it had been bright and we were stripped of masks — if we had been able to comment on the strangeness of what we were seeing, able to assign words to our thoughts, have facial reactions that could be read by others, ask questions, do the things humans normally do when trying to make sense of something strange I’m sure that most of us would’ve adhered more thoroughly to “social norms”. But I’m glad it wasn’t a “socially normal” night. Those iron-clad beds were deliciously springy.