Review of “Sleep No More”: Disappointing Shakespeare

After about an hour of wandering around rooms reminiscent of Cambridge Antique Mart (McGrath Highway, free entry, free parking) I found myself in the Manderley Bar, which is part of the production set, sat down next to a handful of equally confused looking adults and said:”Did I miss something?”

Glad to find release from their shell shock (shock at having spent $40 x 2 on a ticket, $7 x 2 to the City of Brookline, $5 to a ticket agency, $11 for parking, $2 to check coats, and $7 each for a non-alcoholic drink) they all answered: “I’m thinking the same thing!”

(BTW: the evening we were there a man was pick pocketed while he roamed through the dark rooms. Someone took his wallet and cell phone.)

SLEEP NO MORE, is a Punchdrunk and American Repertory Theater Production taking place in Brookline’s old Lincoln School on Boylston Street, through January 3, 2010. It is one of three shows in three different locations that have to do with a Shakespeare Exploded theme. The production has received mostly favorable reviews from the press and from attendees who post their reactions on the web. The half dozen people sitting at a table with me at the Manderley couldn’t figure out why the good reviews.

What could have redeemed the show?  Several of us agreed: dialogue (or maybe cue cards?) One man confessed he was there only because his daughter was a theater major; he knew nothing about theater and after the past hour understood less. My husband, who has performed with the ART in the past, asked: “What’s the point?”

Besides being like a trip to the antique mart, I thought the absence of dialogue and the collage effect of SLEEP NO MORE immersed viewers in a 3-D module of short attention span.  But I can get ‘almost’ that on the internet and for less out-of-pocket cash.  I go to theater to ponder and share the human connection to sorrow and joy.

According to the program, the production merges the theatrical and the cinematic; Shakespeare fused to Hitchcock. Huh? Hitchcock film sets are bright, almost all primary colors.

Ok. I admit the rooms full of pine trees were extraordinary. And…first ten minutes were exciting. The Masks. Darkness. Spooky music.  Strangers brushing against my body. It was a bit like being in Venice during Carnivale, wandering through a candle lit palazzo. Then there were the women in lingerie flailing themselves around on beds, moaning.  For sure there’s an intended sexual charge. The actor who delivered us via crowded elevator to a dark hallway, winked and said, ‘Now go on out and misbehave!”

Are Bostonians too uptight to misbehave?  Is New England still awash in conservative Puritanical energy? We we all expected to get randy in a public space? Was that the point…to realize it was possible yet impossible?

After the initial charge, SLEEP NO MORE delivered more of the same– flailing women, dark rooms, weird music, strangers, mildewed books, ratty furniture–never lifting the exposition to a story climax.

Immersion? Yes. Theater ? No?  Installation art? Yes.

If I had paid half the price, I would not have sat at the table with the other confused adults feeling as if I had been robbed. I might have enjoyed the effort and the effects.  I might have considered that the point of the experience was those last ten minutes: the conversation I shared with other human beings who weren’t whispering “shhhh-shh” and telling me I had to wear my mask.

18 thoughts on “Review of “Sleep No More”: Disappointing Shakespeare

  1. you didn’t like my first comment about rebecca actually being a black & white film? (in clarification of your comment – “Hitchcock film sets are bright, almost all primary colors.”)

    and about that being the primary visual influence from hitchcock within sleep no more…

    • Two comments before I checked my blog! Sorry I didn’t check first thing. Reply—Yes, I liked it! Both your comment and the film. Amazing: Hitchcock did all the editing for that film in-camera–that I learned in film school–and I’ve seen the film many times. Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca was intoxicating. So I see your point about ‘black and white Hitchcock’ being an influence on SLEEP NO MORE. Is this specific info about Rebecca out there for theater-going audience?

  2. I’ve seen the show 4 times now and my 2nd and 3rd were definitely the best. I spent my first visit getting the lay of the land so to speak, and after a brush up on macbeth and rebecca, I found I understood the show better the 2nd and 3rd time around.

    That being said, I think part of the purpose of this kind of show was to get the audience talking after the left. Having the internet at our fingertips allows everyone to share their opinions, and I’m glad no one has jumped on you for yours. As long as you felt something (even if it was that the show was confusing and you didn’t quite understand) I think that sounds like the succeeded. You did write a whole post about it.

    That’s awful about the pickpocketing though! Was it someone you knew? Did they report it to the staff at the show?

  3. oh yes.

    so Sleep No More has 3 specific influences theater going audiences can use as touchpoints:
    * Macbeth
    * Rececca (hence the characters of Ms. Danvers & The Second Mrs. DeWinters – and a porter who could also be shakespearean)
    * Rosemary’s Baby (with overlap of witches with Macbeth’s witches & Ms Danvers as witch, and with Lady MacDuff also having characteristics of Rosemary)

    The spaces inhabited by The Second Mrs. DeWinters (hotel lobby, sitting rooms, writing rooms) are very much drawn from imagery in Rebecca. Also one could potentially see some of the Mr. DeWinters/The Second Mrs. DeWinters relationship in the interactions between the characters of Malcom and The Second Mrs. DeWinters in Sleep No More.

    If you’re going back to Sleep No More, check out the following folks pictures (you can find them off the Facebook group @ to more easily recognize the characters:

    Hope Davis (Mrs. Danvers)
    Alli Ross (Lady MacDuff)
    Robert Najarian (Malcolm)
    Poornima Kirby (The Second Mrs. De Winters)

  4. Thanks for the review. I am not a fan of ART in general but attend their performances once in a while, just to get disappointed yet again and again. Anyway, you saved me a few dollars.

    • Glad to be of service. My theater-going friend report that BEST OF BOTH WORLDS is bound for BroADWAY: in other words, it’s terrific. I can’t vouch for it but trust their opinion.

  5. You don’t have to warn anyone to avoid it anymore, the second run sold out almost instantly. I can’t even find them on eBay. I guess someone likes it.

    I saw it twice. I’d be lying if I said “I get it”, but I thought the interactivity of it was brilliant. The first time, I wandered around mostly cluelessly..always at the tail end of the throng, or just trying to find the bathroom. The second time, I was far more efficient, and saw much more.

    For better or worse, you pay to get in, but you craft your own experience. So I imagine it’s possible to not get your money’s worth. Even with my second experience being a lot better than the first, they both felt piecemeal–and alas I can’t go anymore because it’s sold out😦

    You complain about the lack of dialog…maybe implying it’s unnatural for actors to be so mute…but isn’t the wordy nature of Shakespeare equally unnatural towards another extreme? Wasn’t Shakespeare’s dialog geared towards an uneducated audience (hence lots of verbosity to drive ideas into their skulls), where many of them could barely see the actors due to distance or poor eyesight? Why bother with that when you are allowed to nosy yourself in, mere feet away from the actors.

    Like you said, it does score points in immersion. If you want to see dialog, the world is your oyster, but where else can you get this kind of immersion in live theater? Watching Avatar in 3D is still just butt-sitting and looking. And as cool as I’m sure the Cambridge Antique Market is, I doubt that my trips there will ever involve chasing shadowy figures down halls, nearly getting kicked in the face, or…several of the other things that happened to me there.

    Even so, I still don’t get it. But I had a great time. This might not be the best way to do theater like this, but I don’t know anyone else doing it AT ALL, and I hope I see more of it in the future.

  6. Scott, thanks for your input. There’s something for everyone out there. Sorry to hear you almost got kicked in the face. How did that happen? Some theater goers might want to know how to protect themselves!

  7. I was watching a fight, and I was just standing in a bad place. Typically, the stewards will silently guide people out of potential areas, but they can’t do much in the stairwells, which can become pretty congested.

    I was just able to duck under wall-kick during a choreographed fight sequence. The actors possibly could have done something had I not moved, and I did get the sense that they did some pullback after the kick, but I’m glad I ducked!

    Also, not that this is too helpful, as your odds of experiencing at any one performance aren’t the greatest, but there is dialog (albeit very little and of dubious necessity).

    Some of the cast will randomly (?) select audience members to bring into a private room, and there will be one-on-one interaction. Some of them give soliloquy-like dialogs, others do more character-acting (but to you).

    I experienced that during my second attendance as well, and it was quite an experience. Interestingly, in the same google search that led me here, I found another page that posited Sleep No More as something more closely resembling a video game..

    So I’d probably agree that theater purists looking for a pure-theater experience should avoid it. I like good theater, but I wouldn’t call myself a purist. Oftentimes I do find the “pure” versions of things more enjoyable, but I respect experimenters and look forward to watching their work when things go well. I just hope to see further evolution of this type of show, I hope it’s not a one-hit-wonder.

    I can only imagine the logistics and complications of pulling this kind of thing off, I hope it’s not hugely unprofitable…otherwise I’ll probably just have to cherish the memory.

  8. The most impressive part of the show for me was the smell of the giant Xmas trees in the ballroom. I could have stayed there for an hour just inhaling. I was not blown away by the production but perhaps would have gotten more from it with a second viewing. I sensed more Kubrick than Hitchcock, though, like The Shining meets Eyes Wide Shut.

    • The pine tree ball room was my favorite installation, too. The smell, the mystery: very regal. Very MacBeth.
      I agree about Kubrick. The masks seemed very “Clockwork Orange” as did the flailing. The Shining! Would you book a room in the “Sleep No More” Hotel?

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