The dark stage curtain hangs still before me. This time, it won’t open automatically and reveal the world behind. I must walk through the curtain and unfold the story by myself. What I am going to watch, or rather witness, is not a stage play, but an immersive theatre where the audience walks around a building to explore the action scenes scattered within.
It is a reproduction of canonical Shakespearean drama Macbeth. Perhaps the drive of this reproduction lies in its new name, “Sleep No More.” This phrase comes from the exclamation of Macbeth in agony when tortured both by internal guilt and external challenges from political rivals. Aside from the flaw and tragedy of the main protagonist Macbeth, this show reflects a comprehensive picture of people struggling in a maze of greed and guilt, love and hatred, uncertainty and doubt. The coercive state of “sleeping no more” depicts the mental unrest of everybody trapped in this tragic incident.
At first glance, the immersive theatre grants the audience more freedom. I am not required to sit in designated seats. I can see what I want to explore, not what the actors and directors chose for me. Roaming from room to room, I am stunned at the level of detail given to the minor characters. They don’t simply disappear from the stage when they are not needed in the major plot. They only retreat to their own world somewhere in the building. My favorite part is the scene when King Duncan is offered shaving service by his son prince Malcolm. This scene, a combination of family warmth and political suspicion, enriches the character of the king when in the original script he seems to be peripheral. Duncan has an affectionate smile hanging on his face but continuously shrinks from the blade in Malcolm’s hand in fear of homicide. I am suddenly stricken with the realization that Duncan, after all, is a king in charge of an unconquerable kingdom, not simply the man that seems so easily murdered by Macbeth. We see Duncan’s struggle to solidify his power and his tragedy of placing his faith in the wrong people. In real life, there are no minor or flat characters. Everybody is the protagonist of him/herself. Things insignificant to us might be crucial to others, and we should never forget to hold kindness and understanding towards each other.
As I penetrate deeper into this world, I start to realize the restrictions brought by the immersion. As the audience, we lose all the privileges we hold over the characters. We can’t take omniscience for granted. Characters or audiences, all are mixed in the swirl of conflicts and unsettlement. When the play proceeds to the second round, I decide to follow Macbeth. This places his experience under a magnifying glass for me, but also limits my vision to his perspective. Being unable to see the whole picture, sometimes I am so baffled and disoriented by the fragments I witnessed that it seems impossible to find my way through this labyrinth. The greed of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth leads them to kill their imaginative obstacles one after another, finally shattering the once stable architecture of their kingdom. They deserve no sympathy for their ending, but probably empathy. The world they live in is not one of peace and love. I see him in great uncertainty of the danger the rivalry armies might inflict upon him, trying to pour his thoughts out to his audience and to wash away his guilt in the bath. Standing before him, I, too, have no idea what the other characters are planning in other places of the building. I feel more connected to Macbeth as another human because I know I might not have made better decisions than him if put in his shoes. People are imprisoned by temptations and their own limitations all the time, and it requires extraordinary courage to confront and resist them.
Instead of saying that Sleep No More is the play that made me, I prefer to say it’s the play that is always with me. By bringing the Shakespearean drama not only to life but to the immediate surrounding of us, Sleep No More blurs the border between drama and life. It continuously reminds me that drama is never isolated from life, but instead an epitome of the universe.
This is a part of the series ‘Plays That Made Me’ from theatre editors in which writers celebrate and explore the live theatre that has remained with them to this day. Please be in touch if you would like to contribute your own.