Sunday, May 1, 2011

"Sleep No More": The Memory of Sinful Loss; The Terrible Presence of Absence

"He asked me if in fact I had not found some of the movements of the puppets (especially the smaller ones) very graceful during their dance. This conclusion I could not deny."

---Heinrich von Kleist, "On the Marionette Theater" (1810; Lobster & Canary trans.)

On Wednesday evening, we saw Sleep No More, the sold-out hit play by the U.K. troupe Punchdrunk (it opened in March this year--its initial six-week run has been extended into June). This is only the second appearance in the U.S.A. by Punchdrunk; they presented a smaller version of Sleep No More in 2009 in Boston.

Click here and here for more information.

Sleep No More is an adaptation of MacBeth. True enough, but that is like saying the Empire State Building is an adaptation of Cleopatra's Needle. Sleep No More is a brilliant, interstitial phantasmagoria, an explicit homage to Hitchcock (including use of Bernard Herrman's scores), a chimera combining elements of the haunted house on the midway, the Theater of Cruelty, Man Ray's juxtapositions, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, Cocteau's Beauty & The Beast, a designer showroom, Ernst's Une Semaine de Bonte, an experimental sound concert (think DJ Spooky or John Zorn), film noir, a film by Bunuel, a novel by Sebald, a passion play, a pantomime, Alice, medieval bestiaries and Renaissance theories of the grotesque, an art installation (by Anselm Kiefer, for instance, or Leonardo Drew, or Louise Nevelson), the old Catholic Tenebrae Mass, a touch of Tim Burton and a dash of Edward Gorey, an interactive video game (Silent Hill comes to mind), a graphic novel drawn by Moebius, cabaret, a music box, a museum of the damned, a cabinet of curiosities.

The set is an entire building in NYC's Chelsea district, six floors with c. 90 rooms, each room meticulously and elaborately dressed, encrusted with details that are clues to the mystery of Macbeth. The audience-- each member donning a white, beaked mask as if on the Rialto, and sworn to silence-- participates in the unfolding event, with the actors embracing Grotowski's direct-engagement principles. Sleep No More is utterly immersive, in essence a massive LARP (live-action role-playing game) where the script is plastic and no one knows for certain what comes next.

We chose to wander at will through the rooms, creating multiple narratives from the mass of things presented, which were periodically pierced by the arc of Macbeth (the sudden eruption of a fight in front of our faces, wails and cries in the distance, a tailor or a detective sitting focused on his or her inscrutable work, the banquet scene viewed from the railing of an amphitheater). Here is what we experienced:

Time compressed and collapsed upon itself.  2011 became 1933 (Sleep No More's central conceit is having the action occur in a hotel and nightclub in that year),  became c. 1605 when Shakespeare wrote MacBeth, which relates events from the Middle Ages and themes that stem from ancient Greek tragedy, all interleaved with motifs from the Renaissance, the Baroque and the Victorian periods.  Like Woolf's Orlando, we lived in all and none of these eras simultaneously.

Space distorted and elongated itself.  We wandered through a labyrinth, Borgesian circular ruins, Benjamin's Passagenwerke come to life, the decrepit, ominous streets of Lovecraft's Innsmouth, a Joseph Cornell box grown monstrously large.  Tangled, imbricated space, washed in sepia and the color of soot.  We were in October Country, taken into the fairy howe. 

We lost our sense of scale.  Were we giants observing the details of small lives, or were we ourselves become miniatures surveyed by a demiurge unseen?  We were grotesques viewing grotesqueries, such that reality merged with unreality to become hyper-reality.  As Joyce Carol Oates says:  "...we should sense immediately, in the presence of the grotesque, that it is both 'real' and 'unreal' simultaneously, as states of mind are real enough--emotions, moods, shifting obsessions, beliefs--though immeasurable."

Space took on a life of its own, like the fugitive, predatory streets in China Mieville's story "Reports of Certain Events in London" (2004) or the oppressive, endless, self-referential corridors in Peake's world-castle Gormenghast (1946).  Like the living architecture in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphilli (1499) and Piranesi's Imaginary Prisons (1745-1761).  Or the Theater of Memories built by Giulio Camillo in the sixteenth century, of which a correspondent with Erasmus wrote "the beholder may at once perceive with his eyes everything that is otherwise hidden in the depths of the human mind."  Like the scene-changing, wish-fulfillment rooms in the vampiric Holiday House, in Clive Barker's The Thief of Always (1992), or the lair of The Other Mother in Coraline by Neil Gaiman (2002).   Like the ballroom in the house of the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, where the guests dance all night every night while their true selves languish elsewhere, in Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004).

We walked a queer street of shops, dimly lit by candles that seemed to make the cornered darkness deeper.  A grisaille scene, with cloudy windows full of obscure items.   Inside, dusty vitrines--trollish-- presented ill-defined artifacts.  A candy store with rows of back-lighted candy jars, but what floats in the large smoky-ruby-red jars on the topmost shelf?  An herbarium with sheaves and sheaves of dried plants hanging, witch bottles suspended from branches, bones (animal, we think) crossed in boxes of dirt on the tables, a sickle lies athwart, alchemical signs chalked on the walls.

Rooms and rooms.  A nursery, with an empty antique crib, above which float-- like dozens of balloons-- stuffed, headless baby clothes, an enormous dangle-toy for the missing infant.  Next door is a room with a bed empty save for a teddy bear, but, wait, in the misty mirror there is a pool of blood on that bed, spin round to examine the bed and it is once more pristine.  A room with nothing but ranks of deep tubs, each with a scrub brush and a weighing scale neatly set beside it.  A room naked except for twenty suitcases hanging from the ceiling.  A room with crumpled clothes, in the midst of which sits a stuffed dog, silently howling.  A vast chamber containing a blue-lit forest, a path within winding to a spindly, wrought-iron gate and fence enclosing a stuffed goat.  Hecate's land.

Nestled and jumbled within the rooms, all manner of cabinets, garderobes, chests, more cabinets, drawers and drawers and drawers, wardrobe drawers, some half-open, revealing the leavings of a lifetime.  (As Bachelard puts it, "Does there exist a single dreamer of words who does not respond to the word 'wardrobe'?").  Involute, the endless fractioning of space, ever more intimate, ever more secret, for the holding and treasuring and ordering of things.

Above all, a multiplicity, a surfeit of things.  Every surface, vertical or horizontal, smothered by things.  Realia, archived and indexed in accordance with enigmatic systems, a slantwise abecedarium, a cryptic reliquary, "from wonder to insight; uncommon arrangements and smart things" (to use a phrase by Barbara Stafford).  But, in Sleep No More's MacBeth,  insights into what?  Framed pictures covering the walls from floor to ceiling (sometimes turned to face the wall), walls reticulated with mysterious notes, cuttings, empty envelopes pinned up.  Here sprung into mute and eerie life are the over-stuffed interiors described by Wharton and James, by Proust, the "queerest of rooms" in Our Mutual Friend, the dining room at the opening of Buddenbrooks, the dismal parlor Balzac describes at the very start of Pere Goriot.  Chandeliers shrouded in white muslin, acres of plush carpet, flocked wallpaper.  Crumbling surfaces and detritus, like the images staged and preserved by Rosamund Purcell. 

Things, as Susan Stewart notes, can open themselves to "reveal a secret life--indeed, to reveal a set of actions and hence narrativity and history outside the given field of perception."

Things:  inkwells, keys, manual typewriters, carefully bundled samples of human hair, playing cards, braces of dead pheasants hanging from the ceiling, killing jars, stuffed and mounted birds and animals by the score, rotary phones, apothecary jars, dental tools, rows and rows of moldering books (hymnals, Wilhelmine scientific treatises, forgotten poetry), spools of thread, bell jars, papers, mirrors, many packages and boxes bound and tied, musical scores, crucifixes and statues of the Virgin Mary in myriad small alcoves, knives and forks set upright as crosses in tiny plots of sand, bibelots of every description, clocks, ledgers, anatomical specimens, memento mori. 

What then finally to make of (in Marianne Moore's words) "this dried bone of arrangement...the vast indestructible necropolis"?  Under the mortmain of its huge array of things and beneath its pervasive musical accompaniment (the hiss and pop of 1930s records crooning, interspersed with the rush of wind and roll of thunder), Sleep No More presents the spectator/participant with a hollow at its core.  A moth-silence, a stillness.  A congealed impasto of memory, the residue of the murder and torment that has taken place in these rooms.  In every room an empty tableaux but there is fresh hair in the hairbrush, human warmth on the piano keys, today's date on the half-finished letter...the inhabitants seem only to have just stepped out, perhaps mere minutes before we arrived.  They might return.

Or they might not.  Sleep No More's hotel for us appears as a cenotaph, filled with ghosts and shadows clinging to the possessions of both the murderers and the victims, and all those who (like us) just stood and watched.  Encyclopedic memory embalmed; in Pierre Nora's words, "remembrance within the sacred."  A submerged and crimson version of the house described by Woolf in her "Lady in the Looking Glass: A Reflection" (1929):  "The house was empty.....The room that afternoon was full of ...lights and shadows, curtains blowing, petals falling - things that never happen, so it seems, if someone is looking. The quiet old country room with its rugs and stone chimney pieces, its sunken book-cases and red and gold lacquer cabinets, was full of such nocturnal creatures. ...And there were obscure flushes and darkenings too, as if a cuttlefish had suddenly suffused the air with purple; and the room had its passions and rages and envies and sorrows coming over it and touting it, like a human being."

This then is Punchdrunk's remarkable achievement with Sleep No More: they conjure forth "passions and rages and envies and sorrows" by embedding (entombing?) the theater-goer into a world of memory.  Their nautilus-chambered set and profusion of props create story-- a singular and praiseworthy feat.  By insisting that we seek for understanding in things as they are possessed and ordered by people rather than interrogating the people themselves, Punchdrunk enables and simultaneously forces us to live vicariously through a sinful loss and abide with the painful presence of absence.  

Suggestions for Further Reading

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Beacon, 1994; orig. French, 1958).

Philipp Blom, To Have and to Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting (Overlook, 2002).

Pierre Nora, "Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire," Representations 26 (Spring, 1989).

Joyce Carol Oates, "Reflections on the Grotesque" (afterword to Oates, Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque, 1994).

Rosamund Purcell, Bookworm: The Art of Rosamund Purcell (Quantuck Lane, 2006)

Purcell et al., Egg and Nest (Belknap/Harvard, 2008).

Barbara Stafford, Good Looking: Essays on the Virtues of Images (MIT, 1996).

Stafford & Frances Terpak, Devices of Wonder: From the World in a Box to Images on a Screen (Getty Research Institute, 2001).

Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Duke, 1993).

1 comment:

Sovay said...

True enough, but that is like saying the Empire State Building is an adaptation of Cleopatra's Needle.

I love that sentence.

I wish I had seen Sleep No More when it was in Boston; I think health prevented. Everyone I knew who went practically shook me by the shoulders afterward and told me I'd love it.