This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable

Excuse me, I’m having a Macbeth moment

Actress Tori Sparks is getting no sleep nightly in the company of an anonymous crowd. Photo: Alick Crossley

There is perhaps no worse place for a good night’s sleep than in the house of Macbeth.

Go to bed there after a night of drunken feasting, and you’re likely to wake up dead, framed for murder, or worse — both dead and framed for murder. It’s a bummer of a sleepover for all involved, including the hosts. After killing the sleeping king and his hapless servants, Macbeth might get to rule Scotland, but he and his scheming wife will never sleep again. Not really.

Methought I heard a voice cry, “Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep.”

What might those bleary nights be like for Macbeth — lying half-awake tormented by dreams and prophecies, the shadows of terrible deeds?

I think I know, having spent a few hours recently at the “McKittrick Hotel” in Manhattan, where the U.K. theater group Punchdrunk is nightly haunting five floors with its performance piece, “Sleep No More.”

Based — rather loosely — on “Macbeth,” the performance is an interactive, immersive experience in which the audience roams freely around the space, which is at times hotel, family home, ruined garden, psych ward, cemetery, while actors run in and out, performing wordless scenes, dancing, kissing, undressing, killing each other and then disappearing into the smoky gloom. It is deliberately disorienting, a full-scale demonstration of the term dreamlike, with one space sometimes leading into another via snakelike passageways so you are never sure which direction you are facing and from which you came, the light and temperature changing, the floor giving way to dirt or gravel or straw as you move from one unexpected setting to another. There is a labyrinth of tree branches lit by a hazy moon. A room filled with antique bathtubs, another with children’s beds. On one of the higher floors, we suddenly stepped into a cobblestone street lined with storefronts.

Wide awake in Chelsea with actor John Sorensen-Jolink and an observer. Photo: Alick Crossley

You could easily spend two hours there being only vaguely aware that this experience has anything to do with “Macbeth.” It wants as much or more to be a noir detective story in which we are all recruited to the case, though nothing will be solved, and we know this. But there is something deeply familiar about it. The scenes out of sequence. The known settings, disarranged. The fragments of meaning, the fleeting sense of something important happening, but the more you pursue it, the more it eludes. The pervasive, unexplained anxiety, the forest (literally!) closing in. That’s a pretty good description, I’d say, of almost any Sunday night, maybe 4 to 6 a.m. Or Monday. When the mind is “full of scorpions,” as Macbeth says, and the only antidote, sleep — well, we’re fresh out.

We, the audience, wear white birdlike masks, which serve to help us distinguish the actors from the audience in the dim light. But over time, the masks transform us, implicate us. Blank-faced, we stand and gape. We gather in groups around the performers, eager for some action in the murk. We wander, we stare. We rifle through drawers and trunks, finding clues. But we effect nothing. We are useless. We are, it turns out, the ghosts in this haunted house. There are mirrors everywhere, but the faces looking back are never ours.

What did Macbeth see when he looked in the mirror? To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself.

The group’s website describes the space as a luxury hotel completed in 1939 but never opened — “condemned, locked, and sealed off permanently from the public. Until now…” and the dusty lobby does have a creepy, convincing depression-era elegance, with a sprawling reception desk and room keys still hanging on the hooks. But the address, on the far westside of Manhattan in Chelsea’s club and gallery district, has for years been home to another kind of late-night haunt — the legendary nightclub Twilo, for instance, and more recently BED, a loft lounge where partiers lay about on, yes, beds — places where wakefulness was celebrated above all else and sleep was for the dead (or for very late on Sunday afternoon).

The popularity of “Sleep No More” — the performance has been extended several times and is now scheduled until September 5 — almost certainly has to do with its trippy, ravelike qualities, and not at all to do with its sly illumination of universal truths in the text. Shakespeare is an accessory — a fetish — in this hip production, but it did take my hand (after first dosing me and spinning me around) and lead me through “Macbeth” along a path I had not taken before, specifically into “the affliction of these terrible dreams that shake us nightly.”

And I was grateful for it, having spent many of my own sleepless hours in Macbeth’s company this year. It is oddly comforting, this horror story. The play maddens. It defies lessons, morals. There are no cracks where light seeps in. It seems to be saying, in fact actually comes right out and says: life is bloody awful, plus meaningless, and then we die. It’s just that it says it so achingly well. All our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. When so much contemporary popular culture exhorts us to find the upside, the half-fullness of our big wonderful glass, it’s a relief to hear a trusted voice from centuries past say: well, actually, no.

**    **    **

When I visited “Sleep No More,” it was one of three major versions of “Macbeth” showing, or about to show, in New York City — including a quietly devastating production from Theatre for a New Audience, with the beautiful John Douglas Thompson in the title role, and a rather giddy, staged-on-steroids version at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. There was one off-off-Broadway too.

John Douglas Thompson confronts some mental scorpions as Macbeth. Photo: Theatre for a New Audience/Gerry Goodstein

That’s four Scottish thanes staggering about with bloody daggers, four Lady Macbeths wringing their bloodstained hands, four innocent families cruelly dispatched, babes and all, for no good reason, all across our democratic city. Think about it. It’s no Abba dance party, this play. Shakespeare’s darkest jewel is a highbrow slasher flick, a midnight walk in a prickly garden. It is a lair of demons, where all the demons are within.

Yet, implausibly, 400 years after it was first performed, I could have seen some version of it live every single night — for weeks. As tempting, or terrifying, as that prospect was, the point is that it seems we’ve been having an unusually high-density Macbeth moment. The question is: why?

Well. Maybe it has something to do with the host of would-be Macbeths who’ve been haunting the news this year, from Egypt to Syria to Zimbabwe to Libya. Gadhafi might be the leading nominee for Best Performance by a Dictator in the Role of Macbeth. Despite armies at his door, and his end all but written, he is determined, at all cost, to play the thing out. He is Libya, as he likes to remind us, and will not be separated from it.

Gadhafi in France in 2007. Photo: AP/Jacky Naegelen, pool

But beyond that, the comparison falters. Gadhafi is also (or was once) an ideologue, with a green binder full of complex precepts that underlie his methods, however self-serving. Macbeth would never be accused of something as outward-facing as ideology. His only real interest in Scotland is as a mirror to the battlefield of his own mind. Moreover, unlike Macbeth, who was so much happier before he became king, Gadhafi appears to love his job. We can easily envision the Libyan brother in exile, boring his dwindling entourage with reruns of his favorite speeches. (“Wait, this one is really good!”)

And then there was the Ivory Coast’s Gbagbo, who did a very fine Macbeth during the days he spent holed up beneath his palace in Abidjan, while the troops of the president-elect prepared their inevitable victory. Like Macbeth, who steamed in his chambers while armies loyal to the throne’s rightful heir were at the gate, Gbagbo appeared ready to fight to the death, or at least until the forests of Côte d’Ivoire arrived at his door. What “terrible dreams” must have afflicted the Ivorian dictator during those long nights! Alas, he caved and was captured peacefully, emerging before the cameras in a Hawaiian-print shirt, as if he’d merely been on vacation all along.

But these events came to pass long after our Macbeth moment had already begun. And anyway, there have always been tyrants, likely in all the years since “Macbeth” was first performed. Shakespeare himself is said to have been working off actual events from 11th century Scotland, so that’s, at minimum, a thousand years in which tyrants of various stripes, superstitions, diseased minds and very poor sleeping patterns have been stomping across the globe, defending their power, ill-got or not.

So why?

**    **    **

Macbeth can't be harmed by any man "of woman born" or until the forest hightails it to his castle. Arin Arbus directed "Macbeth" in New York this spring. Art: Theatre for a New Audience

On its face, “Macbeth” is a play about the corrupting effects of power. A warrior hero and loving husband becomes the subject of an unlikely, but convincing, prophecy that he will be king, courtesy of three filthy, bearded women he happens upon on his way home from battle. But Scotland already has a perfectly good king, and getting him out of the way would seem to require some treachery that isn’t really Macbeth’s style. Why not just let the prophecy fulfill itself in its own time?

His wife is more ambitious, however, and not as patient, and she goads him into murder by means of the age-old taunt: what kind of man are you anyway? Macbeth decides, and then spends the rest of the play demonstrating, exactly what kind of man he is. You want a killer? he seems to say. You got it. He never again wavers. His fear and paranoia, his sleeplessness, are not the result of doubt or guilt so much as natural by-products of his absolute determination to fulfill the witches’ prophecy, even though slyly tucked into the sleeve of that prophecy is the message of his own demise.

As he sinks deeper into the muck of his corruption, Macbeth resembles less and less the man we first met, and we grow cold toward him, fear him. In his brutality, he becomes opaque, unfathomable. This is why he is often explained as pure evil. Beyond human understanding.

When played well, though, he is perfectly recognizable, just as human as we are.

In fact, Macbeth is in such a state of frantic swirling-down-a-drainishness that I sometimes find myself — don’t tell anyone, but — rooting for him. For Macbeth! The worst man on earth! Killer of babies! Just once, I think, can’t Macbeth kind of… get away with it? Maybe stop killing and start being a decent king and have some heirs? I recognize that he and I have a common enemy, the predetermined ending. And when I notice my shifting alliance, it becomes clear that this play is not just about them, those tyrants.

At its center lies the question: why do people do the terrible things they do? On a grand scale, or a very small one. How could someone, for example, attack us where we innocently live or work? Trade away our savings? Steal our bicycle? Even, break our heart? The play is an extended wail: why?

“Blood must have blood,” Macbeth says, by way of explaining his intention to continue killing everyone on his shrinking list of friends. One step into the darkness demands a dozen others.

Somehow, though very few of us are actually homicidal, we understand this. He has started a heavy ball rolling, and he can’t stop it. He could — in the way most of us could stop doing the wrecking ball work of our own lives, careers, health, relationships and the happiness of others — but he doesn’t. I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er. Inevitability might be set in motion by our own actions, but it also strips them of their power. If Bernie Madoff isn’t spending all his jailhouse hours studying this play, it’s because he knows it, in some sense, by heart.

What keeps Macbeth awake at night — “in the affliction of terrible dreams” — is not guilt over his own treachery, but fear of losing what treachery has bought him. Fear of enemies (or friends) taking from him what witches have promised. Ten years after September 11, and only a breath to this side of a sobering recession, the fear of having unseen forces come into our homes, our offices, our bank accounts, and take from us everything we have gained is acutely familiar. And with that fear has come some misgivings about just how we came by these lives and possessions in the first place, and perhaps about the lengths to which we have gone to protect them.

And we know, don’t we, the feeling of being destined for greatness — if not that which comes with personal political power than the more modest greatness of, say, owning a house, maybe a car, and a remote-controlled garage door through which to drive it — and then running, sweating and sometimes swindling to maintain it. We might call this sense of destiny, merely, entitlement. Whether our desires are basic and benevolent, or outsized and ridiculous, our efforts to satisfy them have become increasingly frantic. The point of it gets lost in the frenzy, and the frenzy itself becomes the point.

Our failure is a function of our excessive success, as Macbeth also comes to learn. The more he acts to fulfill the prophecy, the more he both succeeds and brings about his own defeat — the maddening paradox in which free will can only be asserted in the service of fate.

But this was always what the witches promised, had we listened carefully enough. Fair is foul, and foul is fair.

Searching for clues, or something, with actor Matthew Oaks in "Sleep No More." Photo: Yaniv Schulman

Is it just a coincidence that “Sleep No More” is cast as a noir detective story, set in the late 1930s or early ’40s, another time of terrible economic uncertainty and shaky recovery? A time when the predominant question is: how could this terrible thing have happened? Lacking a satisfying answer, it splinters apart into a million small questions about personal tragedies, and so we are forever in dimly lit detective’s offices where flawed men do questionable things in pursuit of a solution to this mystery or that.

Or maybe it is the other way around, and it is really only ever the personal tragedies we care about — with what happens on the world stage, or the off-off-Broadway one, serving merely to drag them into the light.

**    **    **

Back at the McKittrick Hotel — where, by the way, watch your step, there is very little light to speak of — we were alone for long stretches, with no actors. Left to wander through the many rooms and open drawers and read diaries. Something had happened or was about to happen or perhaps would never happen again. But whatever it was, it wasn’t just about Macbeth or that bald woman or the dancing waitresses or the naked man wearing the horse’s head (I only heard about that one).

Always there was the feeling of missing something. Some scene was being acted out in another room and we would never see it. A phone was ringing, but by the time we reached the phone booth, a woman had answered and stormed off. A woman poured tea at a kitchen table. Who was she and what did she see at the window that made her dash from the room?

On one of the top floors, we found ourselves standing in a moonlit bedroom while Lady Macbeth stripped her husband naked and bathed him in a tub of dirty water. The white masks crowded in, smothering and anonymous. When the couple moved to the bed, I recalled the vaguely salacious way in which our tuxedoed host had admonished us not to be mere observers before practically shoving us off the elevator. My friend and I exchanged glances through our eyeholes. Ohh. Was this where it had been heading all along? Unwilling to elbow other birdfaced voyeurs for a spot near the bed, we slinked off through the nearest door and into the children’s cemetery.

But over the course of the night, many in the audience handled this anxiety by becoming downright predatory, stalking the actors, sometimes running, and always crowding closely around to consume every gesture. Must have, must see. Wide, wide awake.

  • thumb
    Memorial Day every day
    Beyond the backyard BBQ: Honor and aid those who have served.
  • Fast and too furious?
    Can accuracy and the demand for instant information coexist in the media?
  • thumb
      Steinbeck's Salinas Valley
    John Steinbeck's hometown came to worldwide notice through the Grapes of Wrath. Not all city fathers were pleased by the portrait. Explore what has changed and what remains the same in Salinas.