I am currently taking a Shakespeare course at Amherst College. We have read several plays ranging from, “Richard III,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Henry IV,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and most recently, “Macbeth.” This is not just a text based class. My professor encourages us to visualize the process of staging in each of the plays that we read. What should the actors be doing? What space are they working with? How visually stimulating should the set be? Different companies answer these questions in different ways.
“Macbeth” is a play that is particularly hard to stage. If anyone is familiar with this play, there are scenes of witchcraft, bloody battles, murders, banquets, etc. With all of these challenging scenes to stage, the director must create a visually stimulating experience without confusing the audience.
A couple weeks ago my professor took my class on a day trip to New York City to see a play entitled “Sleep No More.” This play was an interpretation of “Macbeth.” But it wasn’t on a stage. In fact there wasn’t even a theater. This was going to be an immersive theater experience. The entire play was going to be using every inch and level of a five-story building in the middle of Manhattan.
When we walked into the building, we were overwhelmed by a dimly lit hallway, surrounded by a deep musical ambience. When we reached the end of the hall, we walked into what looked like a 1930’s cocktail/jazz lounge. The room was decorated in rich and velvety couches enveloped in a smoky haze. When our group was called, a man dressed in a well-tailored suit and bow-tie greeted us. “We’re gonna get started in a hot second baby dolls. We ask you to lower your voices as we enter the hotel.” This then confirmed my initial suspicion that the play was going to be set in the 1930s. But in a hotel? My group proceeded to crowd into an elevator where the man in the suit began to pass out what looked like plague masks. “For the next few hours you are going to be wearing these masks. It will give you anonymity.” My muscles began to tighten with anxiety and anticipation. Putting on the mask made me feel as if I was stepping into the role as a voyeur. That would be my identity for the next three hours. “Now it’s best if you do this alone.” Was this a play or a haunted house? As the elevator ascended, I could feel the tension building. When the door opened I followed the crowd out into another dark hallway. I didn’t know if I should stay with the group or go off on my own. I didn’t want to get lost, so I stayed with the group.
Going down the hall I started to see a sequence of rooms on either side of the hallway, intricately decorated to portray a home-like setting. But we continued on down the hall. Suddenly an eery melody echoed in the air and a light burst through the end of the hall. When I reached the source of the light I found myself in a large space with cobble-stoned floors and a space within the space surrounded by glass. Through the glass I could see two figures. One of them was completely naked. When I reached the inside of the glass enclosure I saw the two figures standing atop a pedestal with a bathtub in the middle. The man and woman were silent. But you didn’t need words to understand and feel the pain they were experiencing. The man stripped down naked, covered in blood, and dropped into the bath. The woman frantically scrubbed him down with her bear hands. Then suddenly the man let out an unnerving scream. She held his wet body against her chest. This moment, this iconic moment I could not mistake. This was Lady Macbeth washing King Duncan’s blood from Macbeth’s body.
This scene, so intense and intimate, made me feel like I was intruding on a private moment. Was I going to feel like this for the next three hours? I knew that I was about to experience a play focused purely on visual stimulation. Once Macbeth was bathed, he leapt out of the bathtub, dressed himself and ran out of the room. This was the moment where I had to make a decision. I could follow Macbeth or I could stay and watch Lady Macbeth. Overwhelmed with the decision, I decided to follow Macbeth, thinking that I would be able to find most of the main plot through him.
There group of us following Macbeth were led down a long and wide hallway that looked like a small street. The floors were lined with stones and from left to right, there were doors leading to shops and bedrooms. I did not realize until later that I could actually go into each of these spaces to explore.
In the mean time, I raced after the troubled Macbeth. He swayed back and forth, bouncing off of the walls, struggling with his guilt. Suddenly he took a sharp turn into a narrow alley. It was dark and cold. Suddenly I realized that most of the group had left and it was just me, walking down this seemingly endless labyrinth. I was completely alone in this world. Then I began to hear what sounded like music you would hear at a rave. It was screechy and techno. Then I could see a doorway at the end of the alley. There was an intense flickering of light, a strobe light, that pierced my eyes. Walking into the strobe, I found a crowd of audience members in there masks watching something my eyes were not prepared to see. The strobe light was hard enough on the eyes. But through the intense light I could see two women half naked and a completely naked man wearing a devil-like mask. In the strobe and haunting techno music, the three disturbing figures danced convulsively. Macbeth swayed with their movements. It was as if they were performing a ritual. With that in mind I realized that I was watching an interpretation of the witches scene in the play. If the actors were trying to depict the horror and madness of the scene in the play, they most certainly succeeded.
I have to admit, that was the one scene I was happy to leave. My eyes were burning from the intense visuality. So I returned to the alleyway. I soon reached a set of stairs. Walking up to the next floor I found myself in a large ball-room space. There, all of the actors gathered around a long table. They were performing the famous banquet scene. Macbeth sat on the far left, while Lady Macbeth sat on the right. As you can see in the image below, there was this vibrant light shining over the table. I will remind you that there was no dialogue. It was all about body movement. So each of the characters would move in this almost slow-motion like way, whispering in each others ears, stealing a kiss, caressing a cheek. Bear in mind at this point, Macbeth has just killed his comrade Banquo. In fact I had just witnessed the murder in a makeshift-bar made completely out of cardboard. There I watched Macbeth fight Banquo to the death in an incredibly well choreographed fight/dance scene. It ended with Macbeth bludgeoning Banquo with a brick. Not something you see too often in theater.
To get back to the banquet, you could see Macbeth eyeing Lady Macbeth. They have succeeded in their mission to attain power. But now their disintegration into madness has begun. Suddenly, Banquo’s ghost enters the scene with blood dripping down his face. He joins the banquet as if nothing has happened. As Macbeth rises to make a toast, so does Banquo. Macbeth stares in horror. With that, the scene disperses and the characters return to their assigned locations throughout the building.
Now that I had become more comfortable with this experience, I started to drift away from Macbeth’s plot to wander on my own. I went up floor after floor where I would find more incredibly detailed rooms and spaces. I found an entire floor covered in darkness. The floors were festooned with dirt and rock, mimicking a graveyard.
I then decided to return to the street set-up. Going into one door, I found a shop completely covered in bird carcasses. In another room I found what looked like a detective’s-office. In the front were desks covered in letters and papers pasted on the walls. Looking around, other audience members were picking up the objects to closer examine them. This was not only immersive but interactive. So I could sift through books and papers laid out on tabled, looking for clues. I could go several minutes in these rooms without a single actor performing. But suddenly, one would appear. In the detectives office, one of the actors would go about his business sifting through drawers and hanging up papers. Then he would sit down at his desk and start typing something out on his type-writer. As you can see in the photo below, the audience is looking closely at what the actor is doing. That’s what I did. I placed my head right over his shoulder and closely read what he was typing. It was a line from the play. In fact, the room was covered with lines from the play or news updates on the actions of the play. Even though this production was completely devoid of dialogue, you could not only follow the narrative through action but through all of these written clues.
An audience member could get away with walking aimlessly throughout the set without following a single actor. Eventually one of the actors would walk in on you. You could also choose to follow a minor character without once seeing Macbeth or Lady Macbeth. But what if you wanted to have both experiences? Well, you could. The sequence of the play repeated three times. So you could follow Macbeth in one cycle, Lady Macbeth in the next, or wander aimlessly in the final sequence. The play gave you countless narratives within the plot to follow. Each one provided you with different visual experiences.
At one point I decided to follow Lady Macbeth, who really made you run up the stairs to catch her. As we ran after her I could hear her sobbing. Again, I had this feeling of intrusiveness. When we got to the top of the floor, we entered a cold room decorated to serve as an infirmary or insane asylum. Lady Macbeth moaned and curled up into one of the beds. When one of the nurses came to assist her, she started to strip down naked to bath herself. Here we witnessed the famous washing of the hands scene. One moment she would be scrubbing nothing and then blood would suddenly appear. We watched the vulnerable Lady Macbeth, naked and filled with fear. I soon left, feeling as if I had to give her privacy, which of course was not true. But the experience made you feel uncomfortable in your role as the viewer.
In each cycle, I was able to witness moments of vulnerable nakedness, overwhelming light shows, expressive dance-like movement and room-upon-room filled with disturbing and elaborate themes. Each moment, every character, was a single snap shot. Each snap shot told the story of Macbeth in different ways. In fact, I found that I had a better understanding of the play through this visual stimulation as opposed to rapid dialogue.
Citation/Link to Sleep No More site: