Twirling towards freedom

Sleep No More

© Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

“Just go,” a friend urged me. “And don’t ask any questions.”

I first heard about the show last year, long before I’d booked a flight to New York. As details of my trip firmed up, I remembered my friend desperately trying to describe this mind-altering experience without giving any of the details away.

Sleep No More is an immersive play staged in 3 neighbouring warehouses on West 27th Street converted into a six-storey hotel called The McKittrick.

I knew it was a re-telling of Macbeth, but was assured it wouldn’t be like any version I’d encountered before. As I waited at the hotel for I didn’t know what, I was seated next to a quiet businessman from Brazil who excitedly told me that it was his sixth time checking into the McKittrick. “It’s never the same,” he said, then smiled broadly. “You’ll see.”

It’s actually not that easy to see anything once inside. Audience members are handed a Venetian mask and instructed not to remove it, or speak, for the duration of the performance. Obediently, I slipped on my mask, tucked my glasses into my shirt, and began making my way through the hotel’s darkened rooms. Inside the McKittrick, time is as slippery as the play’s narrative, and I must have wandered through dimly lit studies, hotel lobbies, bedrooms, bathrooms and ballrooms for an hour before abruptly coming across a man washing blood off his hands in a bathtub. Macbeth!

He told the doomed hero’s story through dance, wordlessly, grappling and resisting other actors as much as he did his own fate. I pushed past other masked audience members and chased Macbeth up and down staircases, through a cold graveyard smelling of damp earth, and into a field of Christmas trees.

Macbeth singled me out in the crowd, gripped my waist and pulled my head next to his. “My soul is too much charged with blood of thine already,” he whispered, then shouldered past me and raced off into the dark.

The show is designed for voyeurs. The scantily clad, often naked dancers hurl themselves against each other as they make love and kill each other over and over. We chase them through rooms and hallways, inescapably confronted by the uncomfortable question: why can’t I look away?

Rather than portraying a greater, grander narrative, it all invokes a sense of heightened snooping. We peer in at the interior lives of the players, rather than focusing outwards on the story their individual motives are shaping.

In the four hours I spent inside the McKittrick, following the play’s silent and non-linear trajectory, my thoughts wandered towards home. As three ambiguously sexed witches performed their black mass, writhing and fucking in pools of blood, I laughed out loud at Macbeth, thinking him a fool for being taken in by their prophecies. As blood spilled down the witches’ torsos, I thought about the version of the play currently being staged by politicians back home. The promise of power, predicted by hysterics, turning men mad.

As Macbeth said, "So foul and fair a day I have not seen." 

Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.


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