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Shanghai Nights: Sleep No More《不眠之夜》by Punchdrunk International and SMG Live (Review)

The definitive immersive theatre experience deserves its success and all the accolades.

SHANGHAI, CHINA – How does one even begin to describe what is already one of the best immersive theatre productions in existence? After enjoying immense success across London and New York, Punchdrunk made a journey to the East to bring Sleep No More to Shanghai, certainly, the kind of theatre that heralded nothing China had ever seen before. Three years on from its premiere in 2016, and Sleep No More continues to be a hit both with the local Chinese market and international visitors, with sold out runs each night from returning fans and newborn obsessives with the immersive theatre phenomenon.

Taking inspiration from Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy Macbeth, and melding it with classic film noir and horror films, Sleep No More cemented Punchdrunk’s position as one of the world’s most renowned and forward thinking theatre companies with its ingenious, impossibly complicated concept, somehow planned and produced to perfection. Guided to the fictitious McKinnon Hotel near the heart of Shanghai’s central shopping belt, ‘guests’ begin their journey as they deposit their coats and bags at the cloakroom, before proceeding to a cosy bar.

We don’t have to wait too long however, before the hotel owners are introduced to us, serenaded with a song, and divvied up into groups to enter the hotel itself, one set at a time. Dedicated to a full immersive experience, our phones are kept sealed up in a small, locked pouch, and swear ourselves to silence. We then enter the true performance space proper (an experience we won’t spoil for you here), and left to begin our completely self-guided exploration into the realm of Sleep No More. 

Experiencing Sleep No More as an individual for the first time is quite simply put, overwhelming, in the very best sense of the word, thrust into a strange, dark world headfirst, hit hard by the soundtrack one can practically feel dancing across our skin as it reverberates around us, comprising tunes from the likes of Vertigo, Citizen Kane and more. While nothing can quite prepare you for just how unique of a production this is, fair warning to anyone who’s never been to Sleep No More: mental and physical prep is necessary, and even with the three hour duration, is is impossible to uncover every secret entrance, read every carefully handwritten note on the wall, admire every exquisitely crafted set piece.

In a sense, Sleep No More is a game, one that doesn’t bank on having any ‘winners’ at the end of the night, with the only prize being the quality of the experience one crafts for one’s self. Much of that is dependent on how much one is willing to explore or invest in the world that Punchdrunk has built for us, an easy feat given the incredibly high production value, and it’s impossible not to become enamoured simply by walking the space. One can spend the entire duration just mesmerised by the worlds created by each individual room, filled with creepy statues and handwritten clues left for each audience member to uncover; every space here drips with detail to completely immerse audiences into it, and the set design alone is more than reason enough to come visit Sleep No More. 

But armed with a deliciously addictive storyline and concept, and that takes Sleep No More from awe-inspiring to downright perfect, precisely what makes obsessive fans out of visitors. Over the course of Sleep No More, audiences will encounter a menagerie of characters inspired by or directly from Macbeth – the grizzled, haggard, eponymous protagonist himself, his svelte but deadly black widow of a wife, a coven of lusty, Satan-worshipping witches, and a myriad of hotel staff, creepy nurses and more otherworldly denizens lying outside the realm of normalcy.

Given careful enough times one experiences the show, along with good memory and observation work, it is entirely possible to know exactly where any given character is at a particular time. Scenes can be anything from an intensive dance performance complete with strobe lights and acrobatics, to characters simply pondering in the silence of their own rooms. If you’re lucky enough, you might even encounter intimate one-on-one sessions with characters who acknowledge your presence and pull you aside and shut the door behind them.

There is the constant uneasy feeling that nothing is as it seems in this venue that ignores and subverts any and all rules of time, space and reality, a kind of purgatory where characters are doomed to go through this living hell over and over again. It is most impressive then that not only are all the cast well-trained enough to execute this mad show each night, but also the onsite crew and those running the backstage in ensuring proper crowd control, direction, and that the skintight schedule is adhered to right down to the minute.

No doubt if one thrusts one’s self into the experience, one will feel a compulsion to tap into each and every nook and cranny of the mysterious McKinnon Hotel. There is an inherent desire to shadow the character of our choice as we run up and down flights of stairs, or to break away when a situation is not to their liking, only to repeat this by finding another character elsewhere, or simply to embrace the stark loneliness of the space and play detective as we explore rooms in our own time.

Feeling like a heady noir dream by the time you return to the lounge from the beginning of the experience, Sleep No More can and will make you lose sleep over just how genius the entire set-up is, and an experience you yourself will become trapped by in lingering in your conscious long after you’ve had a first taste of its drug-like addictiveness. Punchdrunk has created a masterful, seminal work of art that has and will continue to influence theatremakers and artists for generations to come, and if anyone ever has the chance to see this production, the one and only option is to go, or live to regret it.

Performance attended 28/3/19

Sleep No More, co-produced by Punchdrunk International and SMG Live plays at The McKinnon Hotel, 1013 West Beijing Road, Shanghai. Tickets and more information available here here

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