I’ve seen “Macbeth’’ numerous times over the years, but never before has that villainous usurper of the Scottish throne actually shouldered me aside on his way to the feast where he will meet the harrowing sight of Banquo’s ghost. Nor have I ever before found myself face to face with Macbeth as he made his way toward his lethal Lady in their bedroom, forcing him to steer me to one side (and brushing my notebook in the process).
Hey, I got off easier than some of Macbeth’s other foes. And a few awkward moments were a small price to pay for the mesmerizing experience of “Sleep No More,’’ a coproduction by the British theater troupe Punchdrunk and the American Repertory Theater that is now haunting the halls and classrooms of the Old Lincoln School here.
This ingenious and mostly wordless reworking of Shakespeare’s tragedy of ambition, power, and guilt draws its title from Macbeth’s remark to Lady Macbeth, after he has murdered Duncan, the king of Scotland: “Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep.’ ’’
This production makes similarly short work of our assumptions, right from the start, when we are directed to don white masks. Looking (and feeling) like extraterrestrials, we wear these masks as we move from room to room and scene to scene, accompanied by the constant churning hum of ominous sound effects.
The action of “Sleep No More’’ unfolds right under our noses. This up-close-and-personal arrangement not only blurs the line between audience and actor, but also raises provocative questions about our role in the evening’s bloody business. As we look on from behind our masks, are we simply witnesses? Accusers? Accomplices?
Adding to our sense of dislocation, we experience “Sleep No More’’ in nonlinear fashion. It all depends on what scene you walk into. You set off with a group that leaves at a specific time, but you’re then free to go off on your own tangent. You can follow one specific character from sequence to sequence, or you can wander randomly into this scene or that. (I was far from the only spectator to suddenly find himself in an actor’s path.) It took me about two hours to take in the entirety of “Sleep No More.’’
This fragmentation of the narrative forces you to, quite literally, put the pieces of the play together. In this, we are like the title characters of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,’’ Tom Stoppard’s comic meditation on “Hamlet,’’ as we roam from room to room, sometimes entering in the middle of scenes. Punchdrunk is asking you to take part in a collaborative act of the imagination, to become in a sense the author of your own version of “Sleep No More.’’
You can decide for yourself whether you’re willing to do that much work, and, further, whether you can enjoy a version of “Macbeth’’ largely shorn of Shakespeare’s speeches and soliloquies (especially considering that the eminent critic Harold Bloom has asserted of Macbeth that “this man of blood is Shakespeare’s greatest poet.’’).
All I can say is that I found it well worth the candle (an item I occasionally longed for as I stumbled through the darkness). The first scene I walked into was the banquet (which occurs at the midway point in “Macbeth’’), a chilling “Last Supper’’-like tableau at which not just Banquo (his face gashed and bloody) but the slain Duncan made an appearance. I next found myself in Birnam Wood, with trees portentously on the move, and then in Lady Macbeth’s boudoir, where she lay in a bathtub, desperately trying to wash blood off her body. (There are several moments of nudity in “Sleep No More’’.)
This all unfolds in a stylized, dreamlike fashion that owes a debt to the ballroom scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.’’ Bloom has written of the “cosmological emptiness’’ of “Macbeth,’’ and the performers of “Sleep No More’’ do indeed comport themselves like the walking dead.
They frequently move in a kind of underwater slow-motion, but that can suddenly give way to episodes of intense, even acrobatic, activity, as when Lady Macbeth literally climbs the walls or when she and her husband engage in a kind of carnal combat.
In their scenes together, Geir Hytten, as Macbeth, and Sarah Dowling, as Lady Macbeth, are extraordinary. Through look and gesture, whether together or apart, Hytten and Dowling communicate the sense that these characters are locked in a doomed embrace. The Macbeths’ lust for each other seems more compelling than their lust for power, suggesting that animal spirits and the forces of fate, more than mere ambition, compel them on to their dark deeds.
The rest of the ensemble is equally strong, with fluid movements (imaginatively choreographed by Maxine Doyle) and performances that somehow blend impassivity and expressivity. Director and designer Felix Barrett, along with his design team, has transformed several floors and dozens of rooms of an old school - lockers, blackboards, and all - so that it somehow seethes with all the mystery, menace, and murky atmospherics of Dunsinane Castle.
This spell lingers even when there are no performers near. At the end of the evening, I wound up alone in a long hallway that was completely dark save for a baby carriage, eerily bathed in a spotlight. I looked into the carriage. There lay two packages, wrapped in newsprint.
What did it mean? Who knows? Life’s but a walking shadow, like the man said.