When I enter the corridor, she hands me a playing card and a white beaked mask. She looks at me with an enigmatic smile, then quietly whispers “Welcome to the McKittrick Hotel, Mr Allen”.
Except we both know that I’m not checking in to a hotel.
I’m in New York at Sleep No More, the immersive experience redefining both theatre and performance art in a city where both thrive. Every night, over a dozen actors recreate Macbeth wordlessly, transposing the action to a five storey Manhattan hotel in the 1930s.
Sleep No More is a mostly solitary experience. Guests are given strict check-in times, entering the venue in small waves that quickly disperse as people explore the corridor, piecing together their own version of story in the process.
The friend who recommended Sleep No More to me told me to play with everything. Enter rooms, read letters, look under things, be nosey. It’s all part of an elaborate puzzle.
The small elevator creaks as it ascends. I have no idea what I’m in for. I step out on level three to a harshly lit corridor. It feels like a hospital. I enter a darker room and see a number of bathtubs. Most are empty, but one is full and steaming hot. I’m caught by surprise as a nurse rushes through from one end of the room to another without paying me the slightest attention. I try to follow her but can’t work out where she’s disappeared to.
A scraping sound startles me, and I turn to see a distraught girl wearing a thin robe. Her unkempt hair is sticking to the tears on her face. She is dragging her feet as she approaches the bathtub. She removes her robe slowly with great care and appears not to notice that I’m present to witness her at her most intimate. As she lowers her naked body into the water, she is hit by a fresh wave of misery. Her whole body convulses as her tears tumble into the steaming bathwater.
I’m the only ‘audience’ member present to see this moving performance. Undoubtedly, some nights nobody would be in this room at this moment. I know she’s an actress, but her unfaltering commitment to a moment of such vulnerability makes me feel like we have shared something important.
The next room I enter has wooden posts and tree branches in a maze-like arrangement. I feel like I’m in a forest. When I reach the corner, I discover a tiny hut. Though the door is closed, placing my eye up to the crack I can see an old woman inside rocking back and forth as something cooks on the stove. I wait for some time but continue on my way when nothing changes.
The next room feels like the office of a taxidermist. Large glass cabinets display bones and stuffed animals. A young man is ferociously scrubbing some bones, while half a dozen audience members with beaked masks stare on intently. As I step closer, his face quickly jerks upwards at me. With an enigmatic look, he motions for me to give him my hand, then yanks it hard and pulls me into a side room, where he quickly locks the door.
Now alone, he slowly removes my mask.
I don’t want to give away the secrets of Sleep No More by spilling the beans on what happened next, but it was intense, creative and surprising. It left me feeling both anxious and elated. My private 5-6 minutes were by far the highlight of my experience in the McKittrick hotel and I would strongly recommend anyone who visits to seek out these opportunities, as most actors appeared to have one at some point.
For the next three hours, I became a more adventurous person. I became a heightened, suave version of myself. I found myself walking differently, assuming a role. I found myself wondering whether I was myself part of the performance art. And I guess that’s the point.