Manderley, Revisited: A Personal History of Punchdrunk

Sleep No More

Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, which continues at New York City’s McKittrick Hotel.

“We can never go back to Manderley again.” That elegaic refrain of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca echoes through the McKittrick Hotel: the purpose-built set of Punchdrunk’s uncategoriseable dance-promenade-theatre-orgy experience Sleep No More: vaguely modelled on Macbeth via Hitchcock. Characters whisper it in your ears; in one hidden room, Manderley itself is visible from a distance: a birds’-eye rendition of a vanished world.

But Sleep No More, at its core, feeds on our desire to go back. The show both begins and ends at the aptly titled Manderley Bar; each performance of Sleep No More loops three times, a decision that practically allows audience members to wander through multiple storylines, but thematically keeps thrusting its audience members back where we started: challenging us with the possibility of repetition.

And repeat we do. Most of the devoted Sleep No More fans I know have seen the show between fifty and sixty times; outliers of my acquaintance have seen it up to 150 times. After my eleventh show, I’m still a comparative novice. I haven’t solved the mystery of how the coldly analytical Taxidermist relates to the tailor in the shop across the street, what happened to the enigmatic Agnes’s sister Grace, the location of the witch Hecate’s lost ring, or any other of the tangled and likely irresolvable side narratives that weave in and out of the Macbeths’ storyline. There are scenes I haven’t seen – performers I have not witnessed in certain parts (the cast, which itself changes regularly, rotates roles), personal 1:1 encounters I do not know.

When I first started writing about Sleep No More and Punchdrunk, first for The New Statesman then for Los Angeles Review of Books, I was trying to make critical sense of a subjective experience – of a single, intensely cathartic moment that, by the very interactive nature of the show, could only ever be my own. I wrote about my first visit to Sleep No More, about an unexpected encounter with Elizabeth Romanski’s Hecate that came to shape my whole experience of the McKittrick:

An hour into Sleep No More, I was sure that I was about to die. Shortly after I checked into New York’s McKittrick Hotel – the deceptively realistic setting of Punchdrunk’s immersive Rebecca-Macbeth mashup – an eerily alluring woman in a floor-length red satin gown (Hecate, I later discovered), had singled me out as I wandered, unspoiled and suffering from Hitchcock-appropriate vertigo, into the dilapidated Deco bar where she was performing a smirking lip-sync of “Is that All There Is?” After staring me down – ensuring that I was suitably compliant – she led me into a private boudoir: removing my mask and feeding me a vial of tears.

Then things began to get strange. Hecate seized hold of my wrists, leading me into a pitch-black forest, forcing my hands against a series of branches, telling me the haunting story of a child lost in a wood. Her hair fell into my face; her hands were tight against my shoulders, her lips close enough for me to feel her breath against my cheek. I wondered – half-dazed – if I was being initiated, or perhaps murdered; was I expected to spend the rest of the performance wandering the space, unmasked, in collusion with Hecate’s subservient witches? Instead she wept in my arms, her nails digging into my skin, and my fear gave way to a stronger impulse: to comfort her. Hecate entrusted me with a mission – to retrieve a stolen ring – a quest that sent me into the depths of the McKittrick as I dug up graveyards, rifled through hotel lockers, crawled through brambles, increasingly desperate to dry her tears.

When researching Sleep No More for my Los Angeles Review of Books piece about Punchdrunk, I found that often, the show’s “super-fans” – many of whom have subsequently become friends – singled out as particularly striking their first shows, in particular their first one-on-one encounters with performers, moments of “falling in love”. Each repetition of the show would bring new experiences, new emotions, new perspectives, but that initial moment – for them, as for me – was unrepeatable.

Then, I approached the show as a critic, as a scholar. But approaching Sleep No More now, eighteen months after my first show, and three years after it first opened, I find it more and more difficult to write dispassionately about the experience, or to write about the show as anything less than an admitted fan.

My eleven visits to the McKittrick – and nine to The Drowned Man, Sleep No More’s sister show in London – each mark particular moments in my life: my mental experience of the show, encounters sympathetic and erotic, inextricably intertwined with my own state of mind. There were the shows I spent trying fruitlessly to find Hecate’s ring – those shows I connect with the early stages of my career as a writer, the development of my emotional independence. There were the shows I spent being caressed and stroked by Macbeth’s various witches, so closely tied to questions I had about my relationship with and to the erotic. There were the shows I attended to see performers I had come to know as friends – the purported audience anonymity that was once so liberating here eradicated – shows or drinks at the Manderley I attended only because friends of mine from the “fandom” would be there. In each new experience – by virtue of the sheer amount of liberty I have as an audience member – I am a different character in the McKittrick’s world: a co-conspirator, a witch, Fleance.

But we can never go back to Manderley. In the past few shows I’ve attended, I’ve found it more and more difficult to recapture that addictive ecstasy I wrote about for The New Statesman, that feeling of falling in love for the first time. When new actors – however talented – take on the roles I’ve come to identify with particular performers, they always seem younger, somehow, smaller: more human. I notice moments, even scenes, that don’t hold together for me.

My most recent show, my eleventh, seems more than any other to encapsulate how far I’ve come – for better and for worse.

I start the evening with a trip – with other fans – to Gallow Green, the McKittrick’s rooftop bar (accessible from outside the show, but ostensibly existing in the same world), for the Herb Festival: the opening of the season. Run primarily by Emursive, Punchdrunk’s commercial producing partner – whose relationship with the creative side of the show has at times been a trying one – the lush, faux-wild Gallow Green is nevertheless as beautifully intricate at the McKittrick itself. That said, there remained a curious tension between Gallow Green, the McKittrick Hotel rooftop, and Gallow Green, the trendy cocktail bar. (We are rather unceremoniously ejected from some unmarked couches we are angrily told were reserved for press; when I point out I am in fact press, booked in for the show that night, a distinction is drawn between theatre critics and those covering the event itself. This is a shame largely because that couch is the only area getting any of the advertised hors d’oeurves.)

From there we go downstairs to the Heath: the McKittrick’s newest venture, and Emursive’s latest foray into bridging the world of the show with the world of would-be glitterati. Most of the time, the Heath – a restaurant-cum-cocktail-bar – is as intoxicating as the McKittrick itself, with a live jazz band, period-appropriate cocktails, and a whole coterie of maître-d’s doubling as interactive show characters (the most iconic of which is John Lindsay – aka Paul Corning Jr., recently seen as Justice Wargrave in And Then There Were None – who manages to effortlessly turn a crowded cocktail bar into a compelling performance space, keeping the McKittrick magic from evaporating every time a drunk table snaps a selfie). Here, too, attentive audience members are whisked away for moments of performance no less compelling than the 1:1 encounters within Sleep No More itself. If anything, the feeling of such moments hiding “in plain sight” renders them that much more effective.

Yet there is an element of melancholy to both of these places, as often as I find myself going back – for a drink, for a chat with John Lindsay, for a dance or two at the Manderley Bar – I find the role of the McKittrick in my life changing. It has become a ritual, like so many others – a place to see friends, to follow actors I’ve now seen and known in other works, a part of my life. But what it is no longer is an escape. The clear boundary between the McKittrick and reality – the source of so much of Sleep No More’s dramatic and erotic tension as a place where anything can happen – has evaporated. I have danced at special Halloween and New Year’s Eve parties at the same ballroom in which a bloodied Banquo appears. I have taken photographs in Duncan’s Parlour and done shots off the McKittrick lobby counter. My addiction to unreality has become part of real life.

The show itself, in many ways, is as technically good as it ever has been. Holding court over the Manderley Bar, the charismatic Evelyn (Mallory Gracenin) – one of the Manderley equivalents of the upstairs John Lindsay – ushers us into the 1930’s by virtue of her flawless Locust Valley Lockjaw. Nick Bruder – one of the longest-running Macbeths – gives the kind of phenomenal performance in which dizzying contortions and silent stillness can be made equally devastating. Relative newcomer Troy Oglivie, as Lady Macbeth, is feral, furious and eminently watchable.

But the witches do not have their old power over me. Some are played by cast members I recognize and have loved watching, some by people I do not know. They are beautiful; they are are technically brilliant; they are predictably seductive. But I no longer respond to their storyline – nor to the kind of fluid eroticism they convey. Tonight I find them cloying, their desire to seduce audience members too much. The heady atmosphere of sex and death that suffuses the space as surely as the dried flowers in Hecate’s apothecary is too overwhelming.

I want something different – someelement of goodness in this world in which every room is, in some sense, accursed. I follow the doomed, pregnant Lady Macduff (Kristin Clotfelter) – all Madonnas and private altars – perhaps the only genuinely decent person in the entire narrative. My encounter with her is soft, protective, moving. For the first time, I see the world of the McKittrick through her eyes.

I notice Elizabeth Romanski – my first Hecate and my first 1:1, whom I have not seen in the McKittrick since September 2012 – is playing Hecate. Any other night, I feel, I would have wanted to follow her: to see if her savage portrayal of the character affects me as deeply as it once has. But tonight I am irrationally, wildly angry with her – as if she is responsible for Lady Macduff’s fate.

This is not the show I fell in love with. The choreography is the same; the cast is as talented as ever; there are people all around me being dragged into locked rooms who are doubtless experiencing what I experienced when Hecate first asked me to find her ring.

But we can never go back. The McKittrick is no longer for me what it once was: a place constructed purely of fantasy, where I – hidden behind a white mask – could lose myself. I find pieces of myself all over the place now. Rooms I have been in before, during the show or during a post-show party: memories I have left there. Characters are actors I have seen elsewhere, or in plainclothes at the Manderley Bar.

I am a different girl than the one who first saw the show on the 13 September 2012, for whom it represented a kind of escape that dovetailed so perfectly with her newfound independence. And so Sleep No More is a different show, now; one I must learn to watch, maybe to love, in a different way.

A few days after seeing Sleep No More, I found out that its sister show, The Drowned Man is closing in London after only a year. In many ways, The Drowned Man excites me more theatrically – it’s easily twice the size, and the sheer power of its scale lends itself more naturally to return visits than the more intimate Sleep No More. Part of its mystique, though, may well come from the fact that it doesn’t have a Gallow Green, a Heath, post-show parties (though a single one is forthcoming in May), anything more than a relatively perfunctory post-show bar. Temple Studios, at least for now, is not real life.

And it won’t have a chance to be. By the time it closes in July, I’ll have seen it two or three more times at most. I’ll have followed most of the characters, perhaps, but I won’t have discovered everything. And for all that I’ll miss the show, long to uncover the rest of its secrets, I’m less sorry than I would otherwise have been to see it go. I’ll lose that part of my life, those stories I want to inhabit, early enough that it will never feel real.

I doubt this is the last of my visits to Sleep No More. Doubtless I’ll go again – bring my boyfriend, for the first time, bring new friends, say goodbye to performers whose work has meant much to me, drink at the Manderley and Gallow Green. But there will be a part of me, too, as much as I love the show, that wishes my time at Sleep No More was as ephemeral as that single moment I spent with Hecate in her boudoir, that the show – for all the extraordinary friends I’ve made through it, actors whose work I’ve discovered and loved through it, wonderful times I’ve had there – had been as impossible to return to as Manderley itself.

But we can never go back.

We can only go forward from here.

Sleep No More continues at the McKittrick Hotel in New York City; The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable runs at London’s Temple Studios until July 6.

Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Arc, The Dr TJ Eckleburg Review, Guernica, and more. In 2012 she received the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency of New York; her first novel is currently on submission.

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