The McKittrick Hotel is no ordinary New York establishment. It is the set for the British Punchdrunk theatre group who, this summer, are playing a strange twist on Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy MacBeth. This immersive theatre experience is a unique ticket in the city and one not to be missed.
Punchdrunk are actors, artists, dancers, athletes and performers, all rolled into one
I must admit I was a little droopy-eyed before I even set foot in this creepy “hotel”. We were admitted soon after 11pm, each one of us kitted out with a Venetian-like peaked mask (to distinguish us from the actors), loaded up into a lift, with our host Lurch, and whisked away into world of exploration with a “cinematic level of detail“. The very dark and somewhat worrying set (for the fainthearted likes of me) is made up of 5 (or was it 6 for some of us?) floors, where we are left to our own childlike investigation, to wander the exquisite and often sumptuous decadence of this 1939 film noir maze with our fellow beaks.
As soon as I was released into this Chelsea-based space, a space Punchdrunk has combined and converted for their own spooky ends, it was clear this was a whole lot more than simply a theatrical production. The more than 100 rooms on six floors (yes for some there are 6) are decadent works of art. Art installations lay in wait around every corner. The disguised guests are encourage to be daring, to be brave, without any hint of what this sinister haunted house might involve. I stumbled across a mist-cloaked graveyard, a child’s bedroom like something out of every horror movie you have ever seen, a library where dusty books of the era line every shelf and of course the main ballroom where many of the most complete scenes are performed and where the finale is dramatically played out to close the night.
This performance is certainly not easy to describe. Left to our own devices, initially confused, the aimless masked crowd cannot hope to follow a cohesive theatrical story. But that is certainly no disadvantage. This hotchpotch of art installation, modern dance, athletic acrobatics, cabaret performed in a set out of a Haunted House Disney ride, Sleep No More is a feast for the senses. I am not a huge fan of scary experiences, yet it only took the initial plunge into a collection of rooms plucked right out of a 30s insane asylum, and I was in the mood. If a little on edge, I was eager to explore every detail and after finding myself alone in a padded cell, with the cushioned walls dramatically slashed, I was delighted to find my first actor and some company in this disarray.
In a small bedroom, a woman lies curled up on her bed. A man watches her, and a dozen or so anonymous beaks file in around them, close enough to touch but strangely distant enough from the piece that it seems as if we are not even occupying the same world. We are bystanders, ghosts hovering around them, forbidden to speak. Once he has danced his way around the room and covered his lady with a blanket, he leaves, with a few white masks hurrying behind him. But a few of us remain, keen to see what she may do. We wait, patiently. This is my first experience here and it feels like we are all unsure what to do. Some of us sit on the sofas, chairs, while others stand close by, watching. Soon after she awakes, aware of the blanket left for her, and glides to a mirror, observing her reflection keenly. Some of my fellow audience lean over behind her, becoming part of her art, their reflections surrounding hers in the glass. Then just as quickly she leaps backwards, opening a wardrobe, and disappearing inside. As the door shuts behind her I look to my neighbour, and without words (as we are prohibited from speaking, or indeed removing our masks), we fling open the door and step inside the wardrobe in pursuit. Following through a wall of coats, this Narnia-like wardrobe is just one of the secret passages hidden within this spooky labyrinth.
Beaked ghosts watch on
To reveal more would be unfair to you. It would defeat the purpose of the experience, and all you really need to know is to be courageous. Take risks, trust in the actors and if they take your hand and lead you away, you should probably allow it. For a rich and deep 3 hours in the McKittrick, you need to leave all your fears outside. Or at least embrace the unusual and often surprising happenings around every doorway, and be terrified in the process. And for my part, I too enjoyed watching my fellow voyeurs, the white masked audience were absolutely part of the experience. As an actor rushes past and a trail of beaked creatures chase behind him it is a spectacle in itself. As you step inside the next room, and a white beak is perched on the edge of a bed, examining a broken doll or rummaging through some drawers, one is acutely aware of the precise design that has gone into this event. We are truly part of their art. So seize the opportunity before it is too late.