I saw both the National Theatre’s War Horse (5 Tonys in 2011, including Best Play) and Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More last week. The two shows share a common thread in that they ask their audiences to become involved in an area of performance they may not have experienced to the same degree before. War Horse’s puppetry is of a scale that few American audiences will have seen, while Sleep No More immerses its audience from the word go. This is what real virtual reality feels like, people.
The physicality of Sleep No More goes hand in hand with the completely explorable world the Punchdrunk team has created. It reminded me of the now-ancient video game Myst, thanks to its eerie atmosphere and breaking – utterly – of the fourth wall. At the same time, it delivers the pent-up physical mayhem of Fuerzabruta (“Look Up”). Sleep No More may be the best example of physical experimental theatre aimed at a mass audience that I’ve ever seen performed in the US of A – and yet it is a consummately European show, with its looped time and the externalized, physical performances of the cast. Drawing on imagery from Hitchcock and inspiration from Macbeth, Sleep No More is cutting edge and exciting, the perfect way to wake up from the drudgery of reality by taking a trip – like Alice, Dorothy or Neo – to another world.
Meanwhile, the “other world” of War Horse is one of war, separation and suffering. Based on a children’s book, the story traces the journey of a foal bought at exorbitant price at auction only to eventually be sold into the British Cavalry. There are multiple levels to this story: the boy and his horse, the humanity of fighters on both sides of an armed conflict, and questions about how multiple generations deal with the effects of war are just a few. Nonetheless, as British plays about war go, I’m not sure that it’s presented in a way more physically astounding than NTS’ Black Watch nor are the lessons more relevant to our time than those were to theirs. The puppetry is beautiful. The artistry and physical control exerted by the puppetry team members is effortlessly stylized, synchronized and evocative of the behaviors of a living horse.
Still, I think you’re better off as a theater goer if you read up beforehand, go to an early show, and spend several hours exploring Sleep No More at the McKittrick Hotel. Stop in the bar from time to time for a relaxing break, then immerse yourself in their vision again. Tickets are on sale through September – to make it easy, here’s a link.
Note: Tickets were purchased for both productions.