Shakespeare didn’t write Rebecca. Alfred Hitchcock never made a film of Macbeth. But don’t tell that to the celebrated London company Punchdrunk. In Sleep No More, they conjure an immersive theater mash-up of the Scottish play and the Master of Suspense.
Though acclaimed throughout the U.K. for their innovative style and meticulous environments—Guardian critic Lyn Gardner has described them as “one of the companies kicking British theatre into the 21st century”—Punchdrunk has never appeared in New York. When Sleep No More opens in a cavernous Chelsea space on March 7, it will mark the troupe’s first show in the city and only their second in the U.S., following a smaller version of the piece that played Boston last winter.
Founded in 2000 by Felix Barrett, the company doesn’t so much invite audience members to watch a show as to saunter through it. At the beginning of each performance, spectators are supplied with masks and brief instructions—bidding them to explore the piece in what order, manner, and pace they like. Then they’re let loose through a mazelike array of rooms.
According to the company, this version of Sleep No More boasts more than 100 rooms made up to look like English gardens, Scottish hotels, children’s bedrooms, and witches’ lairs. Spectators can follow 25 characters (Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Mrs. Danvers, etc.) as they seduce, traduce, and menace one another. Or an audience member can simply linger in Punchdrunk’s ornate environments—skimming bookshelves, disturbing the shrubbery.
New York hosts comparatively little site-specific work these days, and no local companies produce pieces with the thoroughness and élan of Punchdrunk. Yet Colin Marsh, its executive director, speaking on the phone from London, traces the company’s roots to post–World War II New York performance—to “happenings and events and all those things that came out of the ’60s.” From these inspirations, Punchdrunk emphasizes the participatory, though potential ticketholders may be relieved to know that to what degree you participate is left entirely to your own discretion.
However, says Marsh, the headiness of the event and the anonymity that the masks provide occasionally encourage spectators to push the boundaries of propriety. “If a room is empty and if a space is inviting enough—well, we’ve had some frolics in bedrooms,” he notes. Theatergoers are permitted anything, “unless it would disrupt the action to an extent that it would be difficult to carry on. We’d be worried if any member of the audience tried to break furniture or throw things about, but mostly you can accommodate people’s spontaneous behavior.”
So fantastic and detailed are Punchdrunk’s environments that they provide an opportunity to escape into a different reality altogether. Marsh suggests that the Chelsea space—three linked buildings on West 27th Street, once the home of several nightclubs and boasting in excess of 100,000 square feet—allows this better than most. “The internal layout is particularly complex,” he says, “and a lot of what we do is accentuating the sense of disorientation and surprise.” (Hence the company’s name.)
Punchdrunk is an aesthetically restive troupe, always seeking out new forms and environments. Several recent shows have emphasized film and the visual arts. The company has also provided event design for Stella Artois and Louis Vuitton. Perhaps their restlessness will infect local artists who visit this show—Sleep No More might provide the sort of wake-up call NYC site-specific theater needs. Just watch out for that immersive dagger.