How An Immersive Shakespeare Experience In NYC Wound Up Feeling Like Real-Life Elden Ring
Punchdrunk's Sleep No More is a film noir spin on Macbeth. It also captures a sense of wonder and discovery usually found only in open-world video games.
There's a moment relatively early on in Elden Ring where you have the chance to stumble upon an elevator which, if you decide to hop on it, will take you on what feels like a journey to the center of the earth. The ride is minutes long. The further you get, the more it starts to feel like you probably made a mistake--especially as the elevator shaft opens up to reveal a whole night sky and sprawling ruins in the distance. It's beautiful. It's terrifying. If you're anything like me, you probably chanced upon this part of the game on your first day with it and were immediately consumed with the feeling of "I shouldn't be here, I did something wrong."
But that's the beauty of a game like Elden Ring. Even if your suspicions are "confirmed" by the video game logic of running head-long into a monster that can kill you just by looking at you wrong, the game never actually forces you to stop or turn around. You've got a horse you can summon pretty much anywhere, and there's ample space to maneuver or simply to run. You can just keep going, even though you know, absolutely, that you took a wrong turn somewhere. It feels like you're getting away with something, which makes the next few subsequent discoveries hit even harder because that minutes-long elevator ride was just the beginning. The ruins spiral into more ruins which spiral into more ruins which open up into ancient cities. Nothing is going to stop you. It's a dizzying feeling of being both completely under your control and completely out of it. It is, simply put, "immersive."
This is an experience that is almost entirely unique to video games. Places like theme parks have certainly tried, with varying degrees of success to capture it--"immersive" hotels, like the Star Wars hotel in Disney World, are a high-profile example--but even with one of the wealthiest companies in the world funding such an experience, the vast majority of these projects have found themselves hobbled by things like logistics or price points. It's difficult, if not impossible, to fully recreate that off-the-rails "am I allowed to be doing this?" feeling when you're worried about things like creating an experience that is reliably enjoyable, but predictable, for every customer who embarks on the authored adventure.
You can imagine my surprise when, on a trip to New York City, I chanced upon an opportunity to see Punchdrunk's Sleep No More, an immersive theatrical production of Shakespeare's Macbeth (mixed with a generous helping of Hitchcock's filmography) and, my first coherent thought upon entering the sprawling building was a question: Why does this feel so familiar? And then, absurdly, an answer: This feels just like Elden Ring.
It sounds silly to put it so plainly, but let me explain. The biggest conceit of Sleep No More, the thing that makes it "immersive," is the fact that it's not done on any sort of stage. Instead of a theatrical venue, production company Punchdrunk has bought and renovated a massive warehouse. Looming at five stories (plus one secret floor that only a select few will ever stumble upon) tall, the venue is called The McKittrick Hotel, and each floor is done up as a dream-like movie set. One floor is the hotel lobby, another is a portion of the Macduff residence, bedrooms and foyers and offices; but it spills out into a graveyard that funnels into a sort of greenhouse in the middle of a maze. Another floor is a fully recreated downtown street, populated by tiny shops and businesses. One of the uppermost floors is an asylum that contains a labyrinth made out of birch trees. There's a cathedral and a crypt and a ballroom with a mezzanine balcony.
The play, if it can be called a play, involves the "residents" of the hotel--actors in full '30s regalia--who perform their roles almost entirely through dance. There is virtually no dialogue and the audience isn't allowed to speak. Instead, they're expected to chase--yes literally chase--different characters as they race through the hotel and advance their own storylines. But you don't actually have to follow anyone or anything at all--in fact, for large chunks of the show, you'll find yourself completely alone and able to wander to your heart's content.
After 30 or so minutes of wandering, I realized I had absolutely no idea where I was or how I got there. I had no idea how much time had actually passed. I was alone in the patient's ward of the asylum and it was so dark I could hardly see. I accidentally kicked a bedpan on the ground and it clattered against a bed frame. I nearly jumped out of my skin. No one rushed to shush me or reset the prop. Later, I found a narrow empty corridor that led me around to the employee side of the hotel's check in desk. An actor was there, performing a scene to the crowd who were all on the customer side. "I shouldn't be here," I thought, watching the performer dance and contort and eventually leap over the counter to race down to the other side of the lobby, "I'm getting away with something."
These sort of experiences never became unsurprising, but they did become relatively common. The way Sleep No More works, in a technical sense, is on a series of "loops," not unlike the pre-programmed paths and stories NPCs get in video games. The characters move throughout the hotel, performing their scenes regardless of the audience's presence, and it's your job as an attendee of the show to find them.
At another point during the night, I watched a woman dressed as a maid slip from a room through a door I hadn't noticed before. I hesitated for maybe two minutes, suddenly unsure whether or not I was allowed to follow her. It felt like I'd noticed something I shouldn't have noticed--a background moment in an otherwise critical scene between two other characters in the show. But again, no one was stopping me so I very casually went to the door and slipped in, part of me expecting to be greeted by a backstage area or a group of security guards ready to usher me out.
Instead, I found a secret stairwell decorated with a massive stained glass window. On the landing, another actor--one I hadn't seen but slowly realized was playing Macbeth himself--was stumbling up while I was walking down. He was bloodied. I'd somehow, completely inadvertently, run into him on the part of his story loop right after he murders the king of Scotland and was fleeing the scene.
These moments kept happening, and slowly the rules of the show began to solidify in my head. This was the Siofra River Well, I realized. This was the secret entry to the Volcano Manor. This was the first time I'd heard Boc's voice calling out to me from the side of the road. I'd felt all of these things before, from the safety of my couch at home, and now I was living them.
During my trip, I wound up returning to Sleep No More two more times, each time armed with a little more knowledge of how the loops worked and how the hotel was laid out. Yet, despite this preparation, I still wound up lost. I still continued to run into characters I'd never seen before and uncovered moments I didn't know existed. During my final performance, three different actors took me by the hand--something I hadn't known they could do--and pulled me into private rooms where they performed, for the first time with dialogue, scenes just for me before ushering me back out into the masses of other audience members, sometimes through the door we'd entered through, other times through hidden trap doors.
At the end of each performance, I was left feeling like I'd seen three entirely different stories, despite the fact that I knew every character I'd followed was just performing the same pre-programmed path over and over again. I'm sure I could go a dozen more times and still find new things. The human element allows the actors to react spontaneously to their surroundings, ensuring that every loop is the same, but different. Absolutely nothing about this experience was on rails. About halfway through my second time through I realized that, if I wanted to, I could have sat down on one of the asylum's beds, or pulled up a chair in the hotel lobby, and simply stayed there for the remainder of the night. Nothing would have stopped me. Some character's loops would probably take them through the room, but others wouldn't. Every choice I made throughout the show was a gamble, and every payoff was a surprise.
Certainly, it won't be for everyone. The show--much like the plot of Elden Ring--is esoteric at its absolute best, and largely left up to personal interpretation. You can work to piece it together if you want, rooms will have notes scrawled on paper, or wedged into typewriters. Some characters will pass you letters you can read, or, alternatively, deliver to other characters for a chance at special interactions. There are optional side quest-like events you can trigger by being in the right place at the right time and catching the right actor's eye. Or, you can experience absolutely none of these things and be left with only several hours worth of interpretive dance and silent acting to try and puzzle through as you stumble back out into the street. It's very much the type of performance where you'll take from it as much as you put into it, and with tickets ranging from $100-160 depending on the day of the week and the time, that may or may not be worthwhile.
But, if you're anything like me, and have been chasing that feeling--the one that feels almost dangerous with how closely you're toeing the line to completely out of control, the one that says "should I really be doing this? Am I allowed to see this?" that you've probably only experienced from the safety of your living room couch--this show is for you.
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