Sleep No More — Shakespeare’s Macbeth Keeps Shanghai Theatregoers’ Eyes Wide Open

Benjamin Roberts

(Yicai Global) Jan. 24 — Audentes fortuna juvat — ‘fortune favors the bold’ invites and challenges the website behind Sleep No More, a unique and immersive theatrical presentation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, ongoing in Shanghai.

We were bold and fortunate enough to brave the spooky interior of the thoroughly transformed McKinnon Hotel and absorb the production and its excellent set design which sprawls through every floor.

Winner of the Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement in Connected Immersion Theatre, Sleep No More is a genuinely fresh take on what superstitious thespians call the Scottish play and its main achievement is being only marginally less frightening than Scotland after dark.

To explain further what is on offer would be to lessen any prospective theatregoer’s experience. That you are required to turn up at a proscribed time, ascend an elevator, surrender your smartphone, enter a beautifully appointed bar with 30s décor and service and be issued a playing card at random and begin to explore. Suffice to say, what follows is a journey and the less you know beforehand, the more you will feel.

Guests are invited, or strongly encouraged to don a white mask that resembles an alien gray crossed with a duck-billed platypus. Those familiar with the Italian Venetian Carnival or Commedia dell’arte traditions will recognise this type of mask as the Volto, or Larva, usually paired with the long black cloak and tricorn hat of the bauta. It was designed to facilitate anonymity and social revelry as it allows the wearer to speak, eat and drink. So, to the bar we went.

The bar is where you get to indulge all your Rothschildean fantasies of being an Illuminati member at a cocktail party, making chit chat along the lines of ‘Where’s the youthful Byronic madness, the heedless Lucullan feast of endangered animals slow roasted over flaming da Vinci drawings?’while secretly hoping to catch an eyeful of your neighbor’s wife in their birthday suit.

Why am I so bored in Shanghai, China’s most-populous and culturally diverse city? Thank God I got a ticket to the country’s third-longest ever running show that has entertained over 60,000 theatregoers. Tickets are available again at http://www.sleepnomore.cn/sleepnomore/en/news.htm.

A man wears a real horrorshow Volto mask at Venice Carnival

Be advised, however that you will need to make a reservation and it will sell out quickly.

Make your reservation. Make your adventure.

The twist in Sleep No More is that it is the audience, not the performers who don these masks and have carte blanche to roam the performance at will. The mask cuts off your peripheral vision, allowing you to focus on the performance. You lose your inhibitions and the ability to see if anyone, or thing is coming up behind you.

When the masked audience move en masse to one of the many engaging setpieces, the lack of peripheral vision does not save you from the slightly unnerving sight of several dozen bone-white skulls moving towards you in an ever-tightening circle. It was reminiscent of the faceless children in the snow at the climax of Cronenberg’s The Brood.

Performance-wise, Sleep No More is rendered through expressive dance, sexually charged choreography, face and physical acting with thunderous musical cues. Everyone will have a different take on what they see and feel.

The performers are young, game, good looking and obviously experienced dancers. In fact, they are far better dancers than they are actors, but solid nonetheless. Moreover, they are better actors than they are singers.

The cast extends to the bar where even the barman cum emcee is part priest, part impressario, part confidant. After talking to him for perhaps twenty minutes on the ruins of his romantic life, he disappeared only to re-emerge on stage to introduce a be-furred attractive doe-eyed singer who crooned out the spooky standard ‘My Funny Valentine’.

After a bewildering, bewitching three hours, I had caught perhaps a quarter of all there is to see, so it is best to highlight three aspects in particular — the Shakespeare, the music and the atmosphere.

The Shakespeare

Fans of the Bard will not be disappointed as nearly every beat of the play is performed. Of particular note is Maren Fidie Bieresneth as Lady MacBeth, who in an attempt to wash the metaphorical blood off her hands writhes spasmodically on a bed, kicking the walls and throwing herself up and down on the bed. She is literally bodily wracked with guilt, her pained physical attempts at absolution, part expiation, part exorcism, are ultimately futile.

A young chap next to me was nearly levitating with fear.

For all the sinewy physical side, she then retires to her toilette to try more practical means, carefully bathing herself. It is a delicate, human performance.

The Thane of Cawdor gets his comeuppance in a devastating setpiece near the close, which has the same shock as inadvertently watching the televised execution of a dethroned dictator.

The Music

Thundering ominously from an unseen antechamber, the score is simultaneously reminiscent of Penderecki’s Threnody for the Dead of Hiroshima, Brad Fiedel’s thudding, percussive, metallic melancholic work on The Terminator and John Carpenter soundtracks, yet is its own beast. It was a shame they did not sell copies of it in the lobby, it was great.

The music is more of a soundscape than a soundtrack and is nicely complimented by standards of the Jazz Age.

The Atmosphere

Its Ace up, (or down) its twisty rabbit hole is the the all pervasive atmosphere. Even mixed metaphors cannot really describe it. While Macbeth is of course a tragedy with supernatural overtones and the New York, Broadway show opted for a bathtub of grand guignol, it would be reductive to say that Sleep No More is merely a bit scary.

Go and see it for yourself and have your own journey.

So is it any good? Yes.

Is it very good? Yes.

Is it great? Time will tell. Sleep No More is coming from a successful run on Broadway and the Shanghai run goes until May, so you have plenty of time to judge for yourself.

The Three Witches presumably toiled and troubled attendees who were lucky enough to stumble upon them. Unfortunately I missed them. If you meet them, tell them we sent you.

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