Sleep No More, McKittrick Hotel, New York City

SNM

Having explored the nature of immersive performance through experience, and read a great deal of reviews whilst researching the topic, I noticed one very prominent issue. Very few reviews capture the emotional, visceral nature of the art form. So I set to finding a way in…and what I came up with was an odd combination of a bedtime story and a piecing together of what I understood from one section or 'loop' of the show in question: Punchdrunk’s “Sleep No More”. The production is based on Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’, coupled with elements of Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’; and asks its audience to wear a mask for the duration of the piece, remaining silent throughout. For the purposes of context, what follows is my experience of forty-five minutes with a character called the Porter, and depending on your perception contains mild spoilers. One last thing: a 1:1 is an encounter where an audience member is selected by the performer and taken to a room alone where they discover deeper secrets about the character. I have left out the details of those moments to protect their sacred nature.


How the Porter manages to survive day in, day out within the dark magic of the McKittrick Hotel is beyond me. To be completely aware of what is going on around him, unable to forget, and resigned to an eternity without hope; he is crippled by his past, entirely governed by a force greater than himself. He tries desperately, endlessly, to prove that despite his actions, he has a soul…a moral conscience…but unless you find yourself alone with him, the extent of his torture may not be fully understood. His life is relentlessly tortured…tragic…lonely… I have been bound to the Porter and I, like him, cannot escape the tragedy that encompasses him.

In being the eyes and ears of the McKittrick, the Porter is trapped in a cycle of tragedy, murder and violence in which he is forced to witness tragic and horrifying events over and again, in the knowledge that, to some extent, he set the wheels in motion…the same repeated decisions….never learning from the mistakes…leading to the same fatal consequences…time after time…a loop for all eternity…and despite brave attempts to stop the cycle…all is futile. The complexities of the Porter, and all he means both within the McKittrick and beyond, are fascinating. Once you delve into these, you begin to question the entire identity of the hotel and its secrets…

It is more than merely the dark corners, sinister visions and rich, deep red velvety interiors that hint at the McKittrick being a physical manifestation of Hell. It is worth considering this possibility, especially when you reflect on what your definition of hell is… a place of eternal torment in an afterlife… a place of punishment… and if this were indeed the case, one might suggest that the Manderley serves as the gateway to Hell…bringing us to the Porter in the lobby, smart in his maroon jacket posing as the most obvious employee of the hotel… [It is worth noting that in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’, the Porter refers to himself as guarding the gates of Hell/ Macbeth’s gates] Our Porter, in his permanent state of limbo…in the servitude of a devil… never to taste freedom… racked with his own guilt and fractured conscience, could be seen as guarding the space between Hell (The McKittrick - his place of work) and the supernatural world, manifested in his tormentor, Hecate, goddess of witchcraft.

Hecate is known to sit between the realms of the 'outside’ or beyond the world of the living, which supports the idea of the McKittrick being Hell. She never enters the hotel itself…but orchestrates via the Porter, from the outside. Hecate governs time…and the Porter maintains the equilibrium within the hotel. It is here that we begin to see the level of power Hecate wields over the Porter…how obedient he is… In being so, he condemns himself to being part of the horrors which occur. He prepares the lobby for the arrival of the witches before Banquo’s prophecy… He phones Malcolm, initiating his cycle of obsession… Tendering Macbeth’s letter to Mrs Campbell for delivery to Lady Macbeth… even putting Vapor-rub on Boy Witch’s eyes before “Is That All There Is” as he knows that the audience must be seduced by this cabaret and that the supernatural cannot cry real tears. All these moments prove his loyalty and obedience to Hecate, and are also vital to many final outcomes in the story, whilst destroying his sense of right and wrong and forcing him into a treacherous and torturous existence…serving her with reluctant and resentful commitment.

As a boy he was eternally damned when he agreed to help Hecate find her ring…it was a merely a foolish errand, but one which once binding, imprisoned him forever within the McKittrick. It is apparent from the wistful, innocent melancholy he conveys that he is haunted by his childhood and the dark magic of the McKittrick seems to be forcing him both to relive his past and fight to escape for his future. The youthfulness of the Porter is physically symbolised by the notes which he folds into origami boats for the journey to their intended. Perhaps the boat is a symbol of a means to escape…his note begs for freedom from his contract…for escape… My journey with the Porter was that of a youthful, innocent boy held within the body of a man, filled with insecurity, doubt, longing and confusion. He longed to be loved, to be noticed… and to see such a soul afraid of everything around him, placing himself at such a low and unassuming status was truly heartbreaking. From what I had seen of his tale so far, the Porter’s existence amounted to serving as witness to a cycle of horrifying events, trapped with a complete awareness of the repetition going on around him, but unable to alter the course his tormentor has set in motion.

Oliver Hornsby Sayer’s performance in this role was show stealing, so deeply moving that despite my time with him lasting merely a third of the night, the show belonged to him. The intricate choreography served to show off his range, but what struck me was the emotional investment he maintained throughout the loop which added such expression, making the 'dances’ feel not like dances, but like time spent understanding how the Porter was feeling in every given moment. In particular, a scene which took place behind the counter in the lobby. I found myself watching from behind the counter, backed into the corner between the large wall mirror and where the pigeon-holes start. Hornsby-Sayer’s dancing was showcased beautifully through the stunning choreography on the counter; his articulate, graceful lines decorating the space (later beautifully contrasted with the dance at the bookcase when he resets the room) In the moment when the Porter comes face to face with his reflection, following a dance of such emotional intensity it brought tears to my eyes. I witnessed here one of the most heart wrenching and moving moments I have ever seen performed. Painfully slowly he approached his reflection gazing at himself, eyes filled with both wonder and tears, seeming to find some affirmation that he should be found attractive…that he should have someone… I was immediately to his right, so close I could see the tears slip from his lids and his breath on the mirror, and in that moment a light came into his eyes and he slipped his arm around his side, finding its way around his waist…as if his reflection was holding him in a waltz. The fleeting joy in his eyes as he came close to the mirror and kissed himself was so evocative that for a moment, you wanted so much to believe that the man in the mirror was not merely his reflection. I could almost feel the tragic coldness of the mirror against his lips bringing him back to reality. Witnessing such a moment of fragility made the later encounter with Boy Witch that more heart-breaking as a central story…the joy and pain flickering across his face from their interaction at reception…being rejected to wipe away the boy’s tears…the intensity of their encounter and pain of the assault…

In the moments leading up to the 1:1, we are the observers of a painful display of rejection and humiliation as the Boy Witch reels the Porter in; flirting…playing…toying, only to assault him most violently at the phone booths, leaving him beaten on the carpet. As I took the hand of a broken man (or devastated child) - ego beaten, heartbroken and humiliated - and rushed with him into his back room, I found myself filled with sympathy…silently praying for an end to his psychological anguish and emotional strain. 

Porter

 

In the aftermath of the 1:1, having been left reeling from its fragility and emotional depth, I awaited the Porter’s return. It seemed the power he channeled in our encounter had motivated him enough to take steps to try and save those in danger. He seemed to have a particularly strong emotional attachment to Lady Macduff, and I wonder now about why that was… It is the only murder he witnessed 'first hand’… She is the only character not engaging in, or influenced by witchcraft… in effect she seems, like him, an innocent…a blameless victim. He tries desperately to prevent her from drinking the drugged milk delivered by the maid. I was disturbed by his devastation when his efforts to do good fail…the way he sank, body inverted onto the sofa in defeat. The tragedy in this scenario - that whatever attempts the Porter may make from this moment on to change the ending…to acquire his freedom…whatever acts of good he hopes to achieve, they will be repeatedly dashed and he will remain trapped inside the walls of the McKittrick, eternally punished by Hecate. Watching him pack up Lady Macduff’s suitcase, awkwardly tending to the needs of the hotel and its guests was so heartbreaking its simplicity and Oliver’s complete investment in the role results in a performance of such unforgettable impact…proving entirely we must “Remember the Porter”.