By Hilton Als | The Theatre |May 2, 2011
Doors. Rooms filled with desks, old papers, stuffed animals, all dimly lit. We’re on the verge of horror. But where is it? In our very imaginations? One of the rooms contains a number of beds with iron frames; clipboards with the inmates’ psychological histories are attached. But where are the nurses, the doctors, who are meant to see these absent patients through their disease of the mind? Is the sight of a room filled with bathtubs, of a man washing garments in one and then placing them on another tub to dry, any more real than the vision we will soon have of characters based on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (Eric Jackson Bradley and Tori Sparks) engaged in a silent physical exchange—a battle that looks sexual because it is—before he helps her dress and apply her lipstick for their shared battle of deceit and tragedy? Sparks has close-cropped hair and a square torso, while Jackson Bradley is long and lean, almost slight; he is at a mental disadvantage because she has the physical power. To see the various characters without masks—or wearing their characters’ face—makes our masked faces look and feel more theatrical and fake than the performers’. Walking from level to level, the audience catches sight of other performers. A pregnant woman reaches for and then shuns the milk she’s being offered. She’s Lady Macduff. Turning a corner, we see Banquo. Again, the performers’ movements—at times delicate and slow, like the tenderest of mimes; at other times fast and agitated—help bring out the tension that exists here between theatrical plasticity (the play’s various actions) and pictorial stasis (its remarkable set). Indeed, the music further confuses us as it insinuates itself throughout this self-consciously “beautiful” work, which teeters on the edge of making us sick—by inducing a kind of emotional vertigo—before hiding behind its captivating, hard finish. The music belongs less to the dancers than to their backdrop. It wafts over, and settles into, the action, which feels as sour and inexplicable as those bouts of insomnia when the world is stale and we can hear the blood coursing through our bad thoughts.
Of course, sleep and blood are the central metaphors of disturbance in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” but I didn’t feel that the Bard was the central dramaturgical impulse here. I felt, as I walked to various levels in the cavernous space, and travelled through a moth-eaten Highlands hotel and alongside the stunted ramparts of a castle and among clumps of Christmas trees, or followed a distraught young woman whose costuming and attitude reminded me of the gesture-filled, lyrical, and cinematic self-exposure featured in the late Francesca Woodman’s photographs, that Barrett and Doyle’s primary impulse was to make theatre matter, to have an over-all emotional effect, in which décor and dance are equal to the dramaturgy, as in eighteenth-century operas.
Because language is abandoned outside the lounge, we’re forced to imagine it, or to make narrative cohesion of events that are unfolding right before our eyes—or on the floor below, without us. We cannot connect with the characters through the thing that we share: language. We can only watch as the performers reduce theatre to its rudiments: bodies moving in space. As such, large chunks of the work belong to the world of dance, and ideas about repetition: the performers “act” their parts over and over in a three-hour time frame. Stripped of what we usually expect of a theatrical performance, we’re drawn more and more to the panic that the piece incites, and the anxiety that keeps us moving from floor to floor and from room to room, like shuddering inmates. This spell is, unfortunately, broken if you return to the lounge to quiet down and gain perspective. The images that one has instilled with fright start to recede as the jazz combo and the singer take the stage, and the beautiful black woman walks and slowly dances among the assembled guests, who are perhaps contemplating the next round of cloak-and-dagger with their own souls. Does this mean that, if one forgets moments of the piece in this doomed party atmosphere, it’s superficial? Yes. Does this mean that the profound role the piece plays in altering one’s consciousness makes it a deep work, too? Yes.
Published in the print edition of the May 2, 2011, issue.
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in Punchdrunk’s “Sleep No More.”
Illustration by TOMER HANUKA