Chinese audience’s novel approach to immersive theatre – mob tactics and mini stampedes

Punchdrunk theatre company’s Sleep No More, based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth and staged in a five-storey Shanghai hotel, is not for the faint-hearted

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 September, 2018, 5:15pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 September, 2018, 10:23am

I went to see British theatre company Punchdrunk’s award-winning play Sleep No More fully prepared.

I wore sneakers to the immersive theatre piece, directed by Maxine Doyle and Felix Barrett, which takes place in the five-storey McKinnon Hotel in Shanghai. And I reread Shakespeare’s Macbeth, on which the play is loosely based, so that, even if I got lost in the maze that is the performance venue, I would not be totally in the dark.

Immersive theatre makes audience part the action

What I did not expect was the mini stampedes.

Audience members were let inside the hotel at different time slots. Upon entry we were given a mask and told to stay silent. We were also encouraged to experience the play by ourselves – which increases the chances of having a one-on-one interaction with the performers.

Those who came in a group were sent to different floors. This might have worked in New York and London, where the show had been staged previously, but not in Shanghai. Audience members in the Chinese city managed to reunite with their friends. And when they held hands and moved around together, they effectively blocked the main corridor and staircase of the venue.

Whenever I tried to trail a character, going up and down the staircase, I ended up getting lost in the mob. The crowd that ran after the character Macbeth was so big I gave up trying to get close.

Occasionally some audience members discussed out loud among themselves what they saw, ruining the mood. One let out an exasperated cry: “There are just too many people!”

But between the elbowing and jostling, I did witness some spectacular scenes. There was a beautifully choreographed piece between Macbeth and his Lady in a spacious bedroom that expressed the love, power and guilt in their complicated relationship. In another scene where a witch transformed herself, the actress playing the character contorted her body and demonstrated almost supernatural strength in a fight with Lord Macduff.

The banquet scene was cleverly played out in slow motion: every kiss, every glance and every facial expression was drawn out and exaggerated. It was when I came across this scene for a second time that I realised the play was performed on a loop, allowing audience members to see scenes they had previously missed.

It was amazing to be able to observe such extraordinary displays of acting and movement up close (well, if you managed to push through the crowd). There were also times when I found myself in a scene so spooky and spine-chilling that being in a crowd was not bad after all: Lord Macduff making his way to a cemetery, or when a bloody Lady Macbeth led us to an asylum on the top floor.

The production in Shanghai has been toned down. An orgy scene between the witches did not appear to contain any nudity, and all they did was share a kiss.

The attention to detail is impressive. Wander around the space and interact with the props, read the letters on the walls and open the drawers, and you can piece together the interesting backstories of secondary characters.

The audience chaos was no fun, but the play more than compensated for that, so much so that I have bought a ticket to see it again. Sleep No More will finish its current run in Shanghai at the end of October.

Sleep No More, McKinnon Hotel, 1013 Beijing Xi Lu, near Jiangning Lu, 590 to 650 yuan. Inquiries: