Now my project has actual humans involved in it, with actual faces and interests and (judging from Facebook) loads of excitement. In light of this, my Line by Line posting seems a bit tedious, especially since, at the rate I’m going, I’ll be stuck on Act 1, Scene 1 until at least September — and it’s a scene I don’t even plan to include in my cut.
So I might set that mad endeavour on the back burner for a bit, and instead start talking more directly about our Hamlet (I can’t call it “my Hamlet” any more). And when I say “directly,” I mean the opposite, of course. I am but directing north-north-west at this stage of the game.
One of my biggest theatrical influences for this production is Sleep No More, an immersive adaptation of Macbeth by UK’s Punchdrunk Theatre Company. I saw Sleep No More in NYC last year, and it filled my head with spooky chiaroscuro possibilities. It’s more the show’s aesthetic that I like, rather than its innovative staging, but I might as well talk about that staging for a little bit first.
Sleep No More is set in a dimly lit, many-storied hotel circa 1930. In fact, the NYC production occupies an old warehouse, but it has been so painstakingly converted into a hotel that you’d never know the difference…at least, right up till you walk through a curtained doorway and find yourself in an indoor forest, or a graveyard, or an insane asylum.
There is a lot of walking involved. The audience moves freely through dozens of rooms, hallways and staircases. Occasionally, they’ll bump into an actor or two, and watch a scene unfold in silent, tortured movements. Then, when the actors separate and exit, each spectator can choose whether to follow one, or the other, or just stay in the room and wait to see what happens next. I was at Sleep No More for over three hours, and I only saw a fraction of the characters or scenes.
The spectators are allowed to touch anything in the environments, but they aren’t supposed to speak to one another, a rule which is aesthetically reinforced by the use of masks. That’s right — the audience wears masks, but the actors do not. So a big part of the show’s aesthetic is watching scenes from Macbeth encircled by silent, expressionless observers — like a spectral chorus, or a host of voyeuristic ghosts. The masks are great; I managed to nab a handful after the show (although I did not attempt to put one on my dog).
Beyond that uncanny element, the environment of Sleep No More is jam-packed with texture. Every surface, every closet, the inside of every dresser drawer, provides weird, esoteric clues to the curious. One room was filled with jars of candies; another had taxidermy peering out of shadowed corners. The addition of an ever-present Hitchcockian soundtrack makes even the most mundane rooms seem fraught with tension and potential.
Because Sleep No More depends so heavily on its immersive structure, it’s difficult to adapt any small part of the aesthetic to suit my traditional, sit-down-and-watch-the-stage production. But I loved the 1930s costumes, especially the dresses, and so even though I have been shying away from a definitive period setting, I may have to dip a toe or two into the jazz age.
There is one way to capture a portion of the play’s interactivity in the Boardmore, and that’s bringing some of the action out into the audience. Prior to Sleep No More, I felt the only opportunity to do this in Hamlet was during the Ghost’s scenes — because what’s scarier than a Ghost standing among you? — but now I wonder if there are other opportunities. Would it be tacky to have Hamlet wander amongst the aisles during a soliloquy? How about giving Ophelia the power to break the fourth wall during her mad scene, handing out flowers to seated spectators? Or staging The Mousetrap on the steps, inches away from patrons?
Not sure yet. But one thing I know for sure: I brought those masks back from NYC, so I might as well use them.