Mayank Shekhar: When you can sleep no more

On the craziness that goes on inside Hotel McKittrick on Manhattan's 27th street, the site of a 150-minute, part Macbeth adaptation

A scene from The McKittrick Hotel
A scene from The McKittrick Hotel 

The fellow just pulled me out of the crowd that was looking at him from a fairly close distance. He held my hand, whacked open a door, closed it with a thwack, took me inside, made me sit on an ancient chair, rubbed oil on my palms, and forehead. For a sec, I thought he might just hit me on the head for effect. He placed a massive sword on my lap instead. And anointed me, king. Woah! What?

The person was an actor. I was at a performance. There were only the two of us in the room staring at each other. "What is the point of acting now?" I thought in my head. The actor continued to take himself seriously still, asking me to place my fingers over mud, whispering into my ear something about a crawling snake that isn't dead yet.

Soon enough I was led out to join the rest of the crowd walking around with their faces covered in a silver mask (like mine was), to check out several rooms over five floors of a make-believe 1930s hotel created on 27th Street in Manhattan, New York City, for Punchdrunk Production's two-and-half-hour-long, part Macbeth adaptation, 'Sleep No More', which premiered in 2011, and has been enthralling audiences ever since.

Honestly, I'm not a theatre buff. And probably for the same reasons many movie buffs aren't. Big screen cinema spoils you silly, lulling you into lying back, and letting visual experiences take over. Stage usually demands a lot more from the audience - textually, to start with, and then perhaps with straining your eyes if you've become far too accustomed to close-ups, cuts, and wide-angle shots that amplify performances. Every once in a while you also wonder if the stage could start moving to other locations as movies do (Yeah, just being a brat).

The latter issue of actors stepping into several locations I once saw solved and restructured beautifully (with multiple backdrops and sets) in the stage version of the film Rain Man on West End in London, with Josh Hartnett and a Brit character actor Adam Godley in lead roles, killing it, in front of us, in the packed Apollo auditorium. This was as good, if not better than the 1988 classic starring Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman. The intimacy and immediacy of theatre is hard to replicate in films.

But 'Sleep No More' isn't a play. It's impossible to follow its Shakespearean plot, since the scenes take place at multiple venues simultaneously, and you don't know who's doing what and where. It isn't interactive theatre either. Interactive theatre is what happens in single-screen cinemas in India, where the audience talks alongside the characters on screen, many of them prodding and cheering the hero from the aisle ("Aur maar usko, maar")! The audience mustn't utter a word during 'Sleep No More', and they cannot move in groups. They're advised to walk and experience this solo. Genre-wise, this is promenade/environmental/immersive theatre.

But it is, as I said, less a play, and more about the place: The McKittrick Hotel (an ode to Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo), that you check into, with prior reservation. You enter a dark alley that leads up to a functional jazz bar serving stiff cocktails, before you're ushered into the building that is as awe-inspiring as it is frightening. But the objective isn't wholly either.

McKittrick isn't a simple spook house, or bhoot bangla that kids visit at malls. It's certainly not for kids, you realise, as you hop from bedrooms, lunatic asylum, cemetery, statue garden, indoor courtyard, to various offices and, boom, you find yourself in a hall with strobe lights and naked men and women in a state of trance, or a bathroom with a woman bathing under a shower, or a whole lot of empty rooms, where it's just you, examining documents, fiddling with antiques as you accidentally bump into a person without a mask, which means that's an actor, and a scene starts. It feels a bit like the orgy sequence from Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, and there were quite a few moments when the pucca desi in me wondered if there are bouncers in place, or how it'd take just one perverted nutjob to blow this experiment, which is really what 'Sleep No More' is - a social experiment that encourages extreme voyeurism, so intrinsic to human behaviour.

The fact that about a hundred people are behind masks in a part noir, part deco, fully surreal, dark space, unable to look the other in the eye, gives all an unfettered licence to pry, without feeling judged at the same time. And while everyone is on their own - allowed to wander anywhere in a 100,000 sq ft area, only sometimes bumping into an actor - it's amazing how, at some point, everyone in the audience, perhaps guided by sound, actually ends up merging together into exactly the same hall, where a finale supper scene takes place. We simply gravitate in a herd.

If you've ever observed 'Anons' of the Internet, you'll know what I'm talking about. Humans in a lab condition in the offline world behave the same way. Unsurprisingly, I left the 'hotel' rather stunned by it all. You must get there some time.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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