By Gia Kourlas | September 2011
The New York Times
‘Sleep No More’, but Move Nonstop
In “Sleep No More,” a roving retelling of “Macbeth” by the English theater company Punchdrunk, the masked audience is in constant motion as it chases the action from room to room at the fictional McKittrick Hotel. But in the end, no one is more breathless than the cast, which is largely made up of some of the most fearless dancers around.
“I’m always excited by dancers who have a kind of danger,” Maxine Doyle, the show’s choreographer, said.
In many ways “Sleep No More” is a dance in the guise of a theater piece. (It is directed by Felix Barrett and Ms. Doyle.) And while all of the elements contribute to the largely wordless performance — including the set, lighting, sound and movement — Ms. Doyle, laughing, described the production as “a theater show with a dance company in the middle.”
Luke Murphy, a cast member, said, “It’s so rare to be even referred to as dancers.” More often, he said, “We get ‘mute actors.’ ”
In “Sleep No More,” which became a cult hit when it opened in New York in April, audience members devise their own paths by deciding, over the course of three hours, which characters to follow and when. If you get tired of running after Macbeth, the Bald Witch or Banquo, there’s a lively bar scene. Ben Brantley, in his review in The New York Times, called the play “a voyeur’s delight.”
All but three of the more than 20 cast members are trained as dancers, Ms. Doyle said. “They couldn’t do this work if they didn’t have this sensibility and skill,” she said, “but actually I think it’s because so many of them are so believable as people in the world. It’s almost that the audience doesn’t notice their dancing as dancing. It’s just their expression.”
The work is meticulous, and the choreographic detail is all the more apparent when the characters are isolated in space without an audience. During the day the hotel, actually three warehouses located on the far west side of Manhattan, has the stale-air ambience of a morning after. There, Jordan Morley, who portrays the slippery, malevolent Boy Witch, led a walk-through of his intricate performance loop, repeated three times during each show.
Wedged between an erotic liaison with a hotel porter and a wild rave is a scene in which the Boy Witch enters the speakeasy, a room caked with dirt and filled with cardboard boxes. As he led the way to that site, Mr. Morley’s expression brightened considerably when he saw that the mulch was being refurbished. His reaction was similar to that of ballet dancers regarding the snow in “The Nutcracker”: it’s magical from a distance, but nasty business close up.
“Oh my God,” he said. “It is so, so a gross room.”
He demonstrated a movement phrase by hurtling his body across a weathered pool table. “There’s a lot of thrash, but it’s controlled,” Mr. Morley said. “It has fluidity, and it’s really about having honest reactions to almost torturous events, like someone shaking your bones or tossing you against the wall or trying to strangle you. The thing that keeps it safe is that it always rolls: in Punchdrunk you learn how to safely impact without killing yourself.”
The choreography, deeply influenced by contact improvisation, has a 360-degree feel to it. “You can never really fix where the audience is, but if I see that there’s a pattern, I start shifting facings or orientations,” Ms. Doyle said. “The concept of entrances and exits becomes really important. Obviously, the dancers never exit the performance arena, but they do leave rooms and they do go around corners, and that becomes its own sort of semiotics.”
Generally, cast members perform seven shows a week, and it’s grueling: there’s no backstage area or resting allowed. The movement can get rough, said Mr. Murphy, who portrays Macduff, and, in alternate shows, Bellhop and Mr. Bargarran.
“My hands have a lot of scar tissue built up on them,” he said, holding out his palms. With little warning he demonstrated one of Macduff’s falls by diving headfirst down a metal staircase. Just watching was painful.<
But while Macduff is a particularly active role, Mr. Murphy cherishes his quieter moments. In one scene he mourns the death of Lady Macduff and seeks out an audience member to help him carry her body. “You have to choose your audience member by the body language of their legs,” he said. “I want someone who is firmly planted and engaged in what I’m doing.”
Translating body language and switching from an explosive to an intimate delivery is a Punchdrunk-acquired skill. “You don’t get applause,” Mr. Murphy added. “But you have a way of drawing people in, even the smallest scenes.”<
Despite such moments, “Sleep No More” is not interactive. “The show happens around you,” said Tori Sparks, who plays Lady Macbeth. “I like it when the audience gets really close, that they want to see if you have tears in your eyes or want to feel your breath — all that’s fine. But don’t try and steal the scene.”
As Lady Macbeth, Ms. Sparks invests her performance with a rawness that is by turns volatile, sexual and, ultimately, vulnerable. It’s the kind of role that has also attracted undesirable elements: while women in the audience have been known to touch her inappropriately, some men have done worse.<
“They have laughed at me,” she said. “For me, that hurts more than touching.”
In one of the most powerful duets of the show, Lady Macbeth persuades her husband to murder the king. Ms. Doyle worked with the dancers to examine Shakespeare’s text, in terms of its rhythm and imperative quality, to gain a sense of its energy. Anatomically, she relied on the mechanics of opposition: pushing and pulling.
“I was interested in looking at how violent the body could be,” she said.
Ms. Sparks, talking about her role in the Macbeths’ bedchamber, watched as a couple of alternate actors rehearsed the duet, which sends bodies crashing onto banquettes.
“All of these surfaces — the walls, everything — are edges,” she said. “Everything has to be precisely calculated, and there’s no room for improvisation.”
She added that she was still working to formulate a training regimen. “This is more brutal than a football team,” Ms. Sparks said. “Everything I’m trying to do now is soft because it’s so intense. I just want a soft touch, soft stretching, soft space, soft noise to counteract it. I think because the theme is so dark, and the work is so dark — everything is so aggressive and erotic and primal — that you really have to find a way to keep that in check. It’s an amazing place to perform from. It’s so gratifying. But to live in it? It’s dangerous.”
“Sleep No More” continues at the McKittrick Hotel, 530 West 27th Street, Chelsea; (866) 811-4111, sleepnomorenyc.com.