If you live in the Boston area and you have a strong constitution, you ought to see Sleep No More, the American Repertory Theater’s adaptation of Macbeth. The story is Macbeth; but the experience is nothing like sitting down in a traditional theater—nothing so safe. Instead, you are taken into a huge, abandoned school building that has been transformed into the set of the play, room after room of dim lights and faded elegance and the scent of mothballs, ink, and pine. You are given a white mask and enjoined to be absolutely quiet as you wander the halls, smoothly separated from the party you came with. You are alone, although there are always people around you. Crowds of white-masked visitors wander the hallways, dividing and coming back together again, silently passing without acknowledgement.
Then there are the actors—although to call them actors seems almost false. In a traditional theater, the actors face the audience, play to them, sometimes even address them directly, and then go backstage and resume their ordinary lives. Here, they are the characters. Whether or not there is anyone watching, Macbeth will wander restlessly about the halls of his castle, bloodstained and forsworn; Banquo will go on grimly playing cards, not knowing that he is soon to be killed; the witches will weave their own secret plots outside the narrow course of Shakespeare’s play. Each of the characters has a continuous life which they pursue without reference to the audience. The onlookers catch glimpses of this life torn from context—here a man staring crazily out from behind a door in the middle of the hall, there a pregnant woman furiously sitting at the remains of a banquet—and flock around the heightened emotion like moths around flame. We gaze hungrily, silently, unacknowledged but dimly sensed by the characters as they move through the hallways. We are the ghosts.
When the show was over and I finally stepped out of the old building into the night air, I felt the need for bright lights, strong breezes, and loud, cheerful conversation. Sleep No More is a wonderful, effective piece of theater, and if it had not terrified me so much I would certainly have gone again. However, at that moment my two strongest feelings were awe at the aesthetic perfection of the nightmare that I had been plunged into and relief that the world of the play was not the world in which we actually live. That world was filled with statues of the Virgin Mary and crosses on the walls, but all were powerless. The sad eyes of the weather-worn statues looked blindly on as praying men were lured away by Hecate, and the stained-glass cross hovered above the dead king laid out in the chapel, no more than a mute reminder of mortality and decay. That world was filled with powers outside the material, but all were uncanny, wild, death-loving and inexplicable. We were shown a world lit only by lamps and sickly moonlight, and so made to miss the sun.
And this, too, is a function of art. Sometimes art must show us untruths, so that we are startled out of our reveries and forced to look up and see the sunlight of the world we actually have. Loneliness haunts us until art forces us into true solitude, and we recognize the companionship that we do possess, and are comforted.