• Cynthia Wang

Sleep No More—the epitome of immersive drama

(Cowritten by Amber Shan and Cynthia Wang)

Sleep No More (SNM), a top-rated immersive drama, has attracted many frenzied fans across the globe. Set in a five-floored hotel, SNM consists of characters moving around to perform in different settings and scenes, and audience members are free to explore and touch everything and anything that interests them (not the actors, though—except upon invitation). It’s a traveling show; originally performed in the McKittrick Hotel in New York(2011), the show then premiered in Shanghai into the adaptation of the McKinnon Hotel (2016), and premiered in London as well.

Surprisingly, this trendy show does not include any script or lines most of the time and is exclusively performed through body language and dance. Throughout the drama, the only sound you may hear will be the footsteps against the marble floor and the background music that assists the progress of the plots.

Based on Shakespeare’s well-known drama Macbeth, the show includes the storylines of ten main characters: Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Banquo, Duncan, Macduff, Lady MacDuff, Malcolm, and the three witches, who are the fortune tellers in the play. Besides the main plots that the audience could watch, SNM also has 11 supporting characters with their own individual and intertwining storylines with the main plot, with references to other classical work such as Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, and the Chinese classic The Tale of the White Serpent, waiting for the audience to explore.

What makes SNM stand out is its revolutionary nature of being an “immersive play.” It seeks to break the imaginary fourth wall separating the audience and the actors in regular plays, and the one-sided and monotonous perspective that the audience sees. Instead, in SNM, the audience can freely follow the actor of their choice, and get so close to the actor that they almost feel like they are part of the act.

In the show, the audience are all in ghostly white masks, with the idea of turning them into anonymous and non-real figures that are merely observers of the show. Only the characters are the inhabitants of the hotel and centers of the show. In this play, the audience no longer has an omniscient view, but their view are limited to only the character they choose to follow, and the storyline of that single character; and by following multiple characters and looking at the same story from different angles, the audience could really get deep into each character’s mind and know their backstories. This experience of exploring the world of Macbeth is totally different when only seeing it from the angle of the main character or reading the original script.

One Thursday evening, we (Amber and Cynthia) walked into the McKinnon Hotel and began our adventure. We were first led into the Manderley Bar at the entrance to the hotel (yes, a reference to the mansion in Rebecca), where we could get drinks and listen to jazz music. Afterward, we were handed our white masks, which symbolized that we became ghosts and therefore couldn’t talk. We essentially became observers of the play.

We’d like to offer our impressions from seeing this play together in Shanghai:

Amber: What’s so special about McKinnon Hotel and the setting of the entire drama is that the furnishings and internal designs are all based on the hotels in Shanghai back in the 1930s, with a cast comprising both Chinese and Western actors, and costumes with both Eastern and Western elements. I thought having elements clash with each other might hamper the progress of the play, since the setting doesn't go along with the story. I was wrong. The setting helps to create an atmosphere of an unreal world with people and stories that don’t exist at all, so when we finished the entire play, it felt just like a dream. Unreal people doing bizarre things at an impossible place just sounds totally dream-like.

I think one of the most important things throughout the play is the interactions between the actors and the audience. If you are lucky enough, the actors will take you by your hands and lead you to a room and interact with you in a “1v1” — they will reveal the hidden side of their character. I was lucky enough to have a 1v1 act with Lady McDuff, although she is portrayed as a “woman who is not afraid of speaking out” in the original script,But during the 1v1, she shows her fragility, and tells me short stories about herself. The 1v1 can help you to have a deeper understanding of the characters and later understand their story line and why they do a certain thing.

During my visit in McKinnon hotel, you don’t have to follow a single character for a complete round. At first I decided to follow lady Macbeth for the first round and the two witches for the second and third round. Since I was a little bit late when I entered the first scene, I followed lady McDuff, which turned out to be a fabulous experience for me. While I decided to follow her the entire time, I lost her while we were climbing stairs and accidentally bumped into a charming but unknown character (trust me, I really want to know who he is), and then when he led another lucky audience to a 1v1, I was again lost in the hotel…

Wearing a mask during the show can also help the progress of the play, and help us to be more immersed in the world of McKinnon Hotel. For example, there’s one scene where Lady McDuff looks into the mirror and sees herself being surrounded by the ghosts, and since we all wear white masks, and the theatre is so dark, that we can only see the mask, and she is scared and then runs away. Also, when Macbeth goes mad because he is so thirsty for power and kills so many people, he envisions himself being surrounded by the ghosts, and of course, we are no illusions, we are just wearing masks. Wearing a mask during the play can also help the audience to get into their character, We all feel like we are part of this story, part of the hotel, and part of the cast, instead of being just an audience.

Cynthia: Ah, where do I even start? It was an experience like no other. I’ll start with what draws me the most about the show — the spontaneity of it and the complete freedom to devise one’s own unique experience. Since it was a five-floor hotel with over 100 rooms open and hidden alleyways and corners, as one would imagine for a newcomer — I got lost, multiple times. But this is exactly the charm of the show, the excitement of discovery when least expected. And when you are watching an act, something else is happening in other places as well. I found myself turning a random corner and running into an act ongoing, with characters and plots I never imagined seeing. The process of getting lost on one’s own and being found truly adds to the immersive experience, almost to a point when I feel like I’m an actual ghost wandering through the hotel and peaking into the characters’ life.

The show takes place in three identical cycles, in which all the characters perform their storyline three complete times. I had a plan going in — I’m going to follow Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the boy witch for each of my three cycles. However, my plan didn’t survive its first contact with the players. When I entered the scene, I could not find any of them, so there went my perfect plan. I followed a random crowd instead, finding myself with Banquo, someone I completely did not consider following before, and who surprised me a great deal. He did two solo dances to reflect the turmoil he had coming back from war, played a card game with Malcolm and McDuff after the king got murdered to show their distrust of each other, and later,in complete disbelief and sadness he’s killed by his trusted friend Macbeth. With the actor’s dance moves and facial expressions, I felt like I had entered Banquo’s inner world; his thoughts and feelings were vivid to me. My emotions got carried up and down with his encounter with other characters and scenes, and I felt as he felt.

On my second cycle, I decided to follow Macbeth and see how he acted out the major plot circles around him. I was truly astonished by the intensity of his story, he portrayed his thought process from inner conflict after knowing he could be king, to determination after being persuaded by Lady Macbeth, to insanity after serial murders lead to his own downfall. Many times having the character acting beside me and doing the killing right in front my eyes, I could hear his rapid breaths, and feel the craziness and inhumanity he radiated out of him, which gave me chills — that was how real it felt.

After following Macbeth’s entire cycle, I decided to do something risky — I wanted to explore the hotel on my own rather than follow a main character. So I wandered through the floors, and let fate decide which character to see. First I saw head witch Hecate. She was in the middle of an interaction with Agnes, one of the secondary characters; they communicated entirely with eye movements and subtle changes of facial expression, and showed perfectly the dominance Hecate had in the interaction, and the hesitance and forced submission of Agnes to Hecate’s order. It drew me in even though I didn’t know the previous stories of these two characters. Hecate then stood up from her chair and left; I followed. She stopped in front of a black drape, and offered me her hand; as she revealed the drape, there was a door behind it, she led me in, and closed the door behind me. I got the 1v1 so rare that only one audience member could get per cycle. There are absolutely no words to describe how ecstatic I felt at that moment, like the god of luck had favored me. Even though there were only us two in the room, she completely stayed in her character and acted out the aloof and commanding, but deadly attractive nature of Hecate. She gave me a mission to deliver a message to the Porter, another secondary character in the play, and sent me off.

And so I went to find Porter in the hotel lobby on the second floor. A secondary character, there are oftentimes only two to three people following him, enabling me to get as close as possible to catch every slight change in his expression. Following his cycle gave me a new perspective into the whole story — he is the only character who is aware of the cycle and repetitiveness of the tragedy, and of the manipulation of Hecate over it all; but he couldn’t find a way to stop the cycle, because Hecate has a hold of his secret. So he shows his determination to stop Lady McDuff from drinking the poisonous milk, despondency when knowing he cannot avert tragedy, and bittersweet inner conflict when facing the boy witch, who plays around with his affection. Although he may seem “insignificant” in the whole story, he is definitely not a flat character, and feels just as a vivid human being as everyone else.

The design of the entire play is very cinematic, with the use of sound, lighting, and props to create the illusion that the audience are watching a play on film — except that we are in the film.

Words do not do justice to the surreal, magical, and adventurous night I had at the McKinnon Hotel. While we move on about our life after the show ends, Sleep No More stays there forever, and every night, they hit the replay button, and the show starts. Everyone has their own version of SNM, and I hope you will have yours soon.

And as the motto goes for SNM: Fortune favors the bold.


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