Punchdrunk, Sleep No More, and the Future of Theater

“When the American school of pacing presents a film, it says to you: ‘Come and have a great experience!’...Whereas the German school says: ‘Come and see a great experience!”

 D.W. Griffith  “Pace in the Movies”

“Peter Brook...pointed out that contemporary theater has never solved the technical (and artistic) problem of theatrical ranting: the meretriciousness that infects the attempt to communicate inner life with words and gestures that must resound to distant balconies...At the close of most performances, I’m convinced the audience is not applauding the play they’ve seen or the actors, but applauding themselves just for being there.”

 Ron Rosenbaum  “My Theater Problem – and Ours”

Evan Rachel Wood guest starring in Sleep No More.  (Sad to say, she wasn't the nurse who kissed me.)

Evan Rachel Wood guest starring in Sleep No More.  (Sad to say, she wasn't the nurse who kissed me.)

Is theater obsolete?  Is that question even permitted?  Film won its battle for respect a long time ago.  Only a few reactionary holdouts insist that movies are trash, and their cinematic illiteracy makes them as philistine as they believe moviegoers are.  But suggest that film can do everything theater can do, and better, then you must be an idiot, and probably the sort of moviegoer incapable of appreciating, say, Bergman, the most theater-obsessed of directors.  (Although his films could not be less theatrical, making such brilliant use of silence, whispers, close-ups of the human face, and the virtuoso cinematography of Sven Nykvist.)

I’m glad it was Ron Rosenbaum who pointed out that the emperor is naked.  As fervent a Shakespearean as he is a Dylanologist and Nabokovian, Rosenbaum can hardly be accused of indifference to the literature of the theater.  But he can see (and hear) that plays are now better served by film than by the stage.

In 1995 I saw Ralph Fiennes play Hamlet on Broadway.  It seemed like a big deal at the time.  And for years I told everyone (and myself) that it was.  But really, nothing of his performance has stuck with me.  I can’t say the same of his Coriolanus, in the film he directed, though it’s certainly a lesser play.

I’m told (by people who may believe it) that live theater is charged with the thrill of danger, uncertainty, the chance of the unexpected.  Which means, what, that we’re waiting for an actor to blow a line or trip over the scenery, so we can appreciate the skill with which he recovers from his fuck-up?  Sit outside an office building in midtown Manhattan (one of the ones with steps that serve as box seats for the passing parade) during morning, lunchtime, or evening rush hour and you’ll get that same charge, at higher voltage, multiplied many times over, at no cost.  And you can venture into the slipstream yourself any time you want.  (About which more to come.)

What theater offers that film doesn’t, at the most basic level, is the presence of the actor, which happens to be the title of a book by Joseph Chaikin, one of the theatrical “radicals” of the sixties whose heroic and necessary efforts to reinvent theater ultimately fell short.  (The upstarts of Off-Off-Broadway, talented as so many of them were, didn’t go far enough in overturning theatrical convention, and their innovations were largely absorbed into the mainstream.  Or abandoned altogether, in the case of the Living Theater’s felonious assaults on its audience.)  But that presence is diminished when it’s caged by the proscenium arch.  And a close-up composed of pixels or celluloid has a presence unreachable on the stage.

Probably the most vivid theatrical performance I can recall is Fiona Shaw reciting “The Waste Land” in one of the last run-down theaters on 42nd Street.  No painfully fake stage set, no curtain...no “acting”, really.  Just a body and a voice and a poem.  Not an imitation of reality, but reality itself.  The fragility of the surroundings – a ruin destined to become a brightly lit house of family entertainment – only heightened that reality.

That theater wasn’t as grand as the New Amsterdam, where Louis Malle and Andre Gregory’s Vanya on 42nd Street was filmed, but it was enough.  The space reached out to meet the audience.  Film lives in a two-dimensional screen; we accept this.  An outdoor or underground (literally or figuratively) screening is a novelty, sometimes a genuine event, but the future of film doesn’t hang on our ability to generate happenings such as spontaneous, pop-up, outlaw cinematheques in empty lots.  (Or, to use the much more evocative French phrase, terrains vagues.)  But theater has to stop hoarding its space and life behind the fourth wall.

Which brings us, at last, to Sleep No More.  For those of you who have been sleeping, Sleep No More is a production by the British company Punchdrunk.  They’ve taken over three adjoining warehouses in New York’s Chelsea to stage a performance based on Macbeth, with some Rebecca thrown in, maybe The Shining, a little Vertigo and Mulholland Drive on the soundtrack (as well as “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” and other vintage acetates), and uncountable cultural and dramatic elements and artifacts your unconscious will be sorting out in perpetuity.  It takes place over six floors and maybe a hundred rooms: an asylum, a detective’s office, a candy shop, a hospital, an apothecary, a taxidermist’s shop, gardens, woods, a hotel lobby, bedrooms, a ballroom, a salon...  (If this were a game of Clue, it would last forever.)

Oh, and this is “Shakespeare” without words.  The actors don’t speak, and neither do you.  You put on the required mask and following them as they dance, fuck, kill, type letters, pack their bags, have orgies, cast spells, get born, get murdered, eat, drink, get naked, shower, bathe, slip poison into someone’s teacup, and hang themselves.  One of them may even kiss you.  (But keep your hands to yourself; unstated, strip club rules apply.  At least I think they do...)

And what sucks is you miss some of it.  You may miss a lot of it if, as I did on my first visit, you fall down the rabbit hole of the set itself.  Months of work went into “Manderley”  (Rebecca) at the “McKittrick Hotel” (Vertigo), and it shows: no drawer is empty, no cupboard is bare, and even the candy store is stocked.  (Help yourself.  Other props are off limits, and black-masked “stagehands” - who will kindly sherpa you to the comfort and safety of the bar if it all becomes too much to handle - also enforce the integrity of the set.  At least I think they do...)  And however much time and money were spent (the ticket is expensive, but Punchdrunk hopes to break even), matching funds of vision and imagination and sick humor and rapturous excess (maybe even research) flowed generously.  The spirit of David Lynch (and of Jack Fisk, the brilliant production designer he shares with that other – and utterly different – American original, Terrence Malick) lives in every dusty wing chair and vintage surgical tool and feather-bedecked padded cell in the place.  (Birds may be Sleep No More’s primary motif.)

Also, the bar/lounge (where a less than Cabaret-sinister but still slightly ominous dinner-jacketed MC entertains and briefs you as you await the dark elevator that will deliver you - and possibly you alone - to one or another floor of the McKittrick) serves absinthe.  Which, should you indulge, will be the least mind-altering part of your evening.

In short, this brave new theater is not a writers’ medium.  This rubs some people the wrong way.  They dismiss “immersive” (the word is new, unrecognized by some dictionaries, defined by others as pertaining to digital technology) theater as just a highbrow variant of solve-the-mystery dinner theater diversions, or, worse, those choose-your-own-adventure books written for pre-adolescents.  But why should theater be a writers’ medium?

There’s an economic reason, of course.  With fewer and fewer paying outlets for more and more writers, what playwright wouldn’t hang on to the stage with all his strength?  At the same time, does any playwright believe his dialogue has more life when projected to the balcony than when delivered to the sensitive eye and ear of the camera?  If theater is the only game in town – because God knows Hollywood has little room for adult drama - you play.  But why else keep at it?  “Tradition” doesn’t seem like that strong a draw.  The traditions of the theater are kept alive in the literature itself, and not so much in the reviews and memories of Uta Hagen in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Jose Quintero’s The Iceman Cometh, or in the drunken intermission hope that you’ll spot one of the ghosts just about every pre-Depression Broadway theater claims to harbor.  Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

And speaking of Old Broadway, let’s toss out the adage “No one ever walked out of the theater humming the scenery.”  Because Sleep No More will have your brain and body humming the scenery for a long time.  This is theater to dream with, dream through, dream about.  It’s theater to make you reconsider the meaning and purpose of all the rooms in all the buildings you pass through, to change the way you look at the world.  Which would seem to be art’s highest purpose.  And if theater becomes a way of drawing out the dream life of the spaces you inhabit every day (with actors as your “spirit guides”) rather than a brief tour of the lives of others (which will always be available through the rich but relatively “distancing” narrative forms of the film and the novel), then it will beautifully fulfill Andrei Tarkovsky’s demand for art that “obliges the audience to build the separate parts into a whole, and to think on, further than has been stated…from the point of view of mutual respect only that kind of reciprocity is worthy of artistic practice.”