Punchdrunk Stans Are The New Arianators And We’re Very Here For It
Theatre company Punchdrunk is bringing Shakespeare back for a new generation with their epic adaptation of Macbeth.
From Arianators to Thronies and Potterheads, fandoms are everywhere. Communities of Stans the world over come together to analyse and scrutinise their chosen obsession, and it's a beautiful thing.
Shakespeare Stans though? That's something we never thought we'd see in our lifetime. A quick Google tells us that back in the day William Shakespeare was as big as BTS, thanks to the Bardolators (no, really). But while we enjoyed Romeo & Juliet as much as the next person, the playwright's works are mostly associated with essays, exams, and apathy in our minds.
Thankfully theatre company Punchdrunk are here to bring the Bard back for a new generation with their epic adaptation of Macbeth, Sleep No More.
Since its launch in New York in 2011 and subsequent Shanghai premiere in 2016, the show has captured the imagination of thousands, inspiring a community as big as Lin Manuel Miranda's Hamilfans - and arguably one more passionate.
The reinvention of Shakespeare's famous tragedy mashes up the story of Macbeth with Alfred Hitchcock's noir classic Rebecca to create not only a whole new world but a whole new way of storytelling.
"Poetic, strange and surprising," is how it's described by co-director and choreographer, Maxine Doyle. And she's not wrong. Anyone expecting a traditional Shakespeare in the Park-style production will be sorely disappointed. Punchdrunk's Macbeth is more art installation than play. Sexy, sensual, hedonistic - and an experience that doesn't benefit from being spoiled. Suffice it to say that it's probably not a night out the prudish or unadventurous would enjoy.
"I remember having the funniest afternoon in New York with a Shakespeare scholar - a Harvard lecturer in his 70s - who told me he preferred Sleep No More to Shakespeare," laughs Doyle.
"He said it was because of the emotional feeling, the visceral feeling, you get from the movement, the lights, the sound. Because often that language can be alienating, can't it? Very few people run to a Shakespeare play, I would say - me included. We want our audience's senses to be heightened. We want them to feel alive."
The choose-your-own-adventure style show invites audiences to move freely about the set, a 1930s era hotel, allowing them to get up close and personal with performers as they explore the rich story, led along by the show's haunting score and atmospheric lighting design.
"We were drawn to the paranoia that happens within the story - Macbeth's spiraling - and the parallel between that and Hitchcock's leading men and women," explains Doyle. "Characters that lose their mind. Hitchcock talked about cinematic language - the lighting and music should drive the film, and the dialogue just helps you to understand the plot. So I started to use some of those techniques to create the scenes."
It's an intense, immersive experience. After arriving in the hotel's decadent speakeasy-style bar and enjoying a fortifying cocktail, audiences are provided with an identity-stripping white mask and a few simple instructions: no talking, no phones or cameras, no disrespecting the performers, and no inhibitions. As Max de Winter, the host of The Manderley, tells his guests: "Fortune favours the bold" at The McKinnon Hotel.
They then have three hours to explore over 100 rooms in the dimly lit, maze-like hotel, doing their best to follow the production's 25 or so dancers who make their way up and down stairs and through hidden doors between lavishly dressed and astonishingly detailed sets, telling Macbeth's tale through movement alone as our hero is influenced by a trio of mischievous witches and driven slowly to madness on a murderous quest for power.
The story is told separately but simultaneously across all floors, meaning it's impossible for any visitor to see everything in one night and improbable that anyone will have the same experience twice.
And it's this richly woven method of storytelling that's the key to the fandom's fascination with Sleep No More. There's no way to make sense of it in just one visit and while once might be enough for some, the curious can't help but come back for more. There's always something new to see - a key scene you missed, a subplot you didn't know existed, or a coveted, intimate one-on-one interaction with a cast member that'll leave you feeling like you're a part of something bigger.
Giving the audience permission to be a part of the show is very much intended by its creators. "The masks give people an option," explains Doyle. "They allow you to disappear into the crowd if that's your way. And they also allow you to move closer, to be more curious or mischievous - not so polite. We're used to seeing sets from a distance and being invited in quite nice, isn't it? You're sharing a space with the characters."
Because of this, the mythology of Sleep No More thrives outside of the confines of The McKinnon (and it's sister hotel, The McKittrick, in New York).
Just like Little Monsters, Beliebers and Smilers, fans dissect and discuss their experiences in detail online. Redditors who've visited hundreds of times spend hours piecing together the tale, making notes of things to do on their next adventure and speculating about the production's closely guarded secrets. Tumblrs are dedicated to key characters, fanfiction and analytical essays are lovingly penned and published online, the blank white masks the audience wears are beautifully customised, unofficial merch is created and sold on Etsy and eBay. The most avid followers even throw themed dinner parties, recreating key scenes or inventing their own to add depth to the show's lore.
"I love that about it," says Doyle. "I love that it's generated artists' responses. The superfans are cool, interesting people. We live in a world where it's hard to meet kindred spirits and if this show brings friends together, happy days."
It certainly makes a welcome change from GCSE English, revitalising a work that's over 400 years old and creating a theatrical experience that's unlike any other - and one that'll stay with you long after you've checked out.
While Sleep No More aficionados are digging deep into the kind of detail that a newbie simply can't make sense of, Doyle's tips for first-timers are invaluable.
"Go with no expectations," she advises. "Be brave. Run around on your own. And be confident in your own interests. Go with your instinct. If you're in a space and you want to be curious and look at things, have the confidence to do that. If you see someone that's interesting, or terrifying or that you could fall in love with, follow them and follow their story and you'll find some action. Don't be afraid to go in the opposite direction to the crowd.
"Accept that you're in a dream and go with the flow of it - you'll come out with something that's just yours."
Sleep No More is co-produced by Punchdrunk International and SMG Live.