Shadow play: Scenes from Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More at the McKinnon Hotel in Shanghai ( )
Punchdrunk Theatre Company has come a long way — literally — from the Paddington warehouses and dilapidated Docklands pharmacies it once turned into London’s triumphant immersive theatre supersets in the Noughties.
Five and a half thousand miles away in Shanghai, the company’s international arm is now a long-distance record setter. And it’s ahead of the pack. Punchdrunk’s Anglo-Chinese production of erstwhile London showstopper Sleep No More, a noir storyscape loosely based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth (its original 2003 run was at the Beaufoy Building in Lambeth), sold 177,000 tickets in just 20 months, becoming the second-longest running show in Shanghai theatre history.
It occupies three storeys of the upmarket McKinnon Hotel, a renovated skyrise in the Jing’an district replete with a suite — Room 802 — in which to stay the night at extra cost. Significant state backing comes via co-producers SMG Live — a good thing, as Punchdrunk productions have the budget of a small film.
It’s all good news for Britain’s cultural currency abroad, just as the UK grapples for its worth to international partners in a post-Brexit world.
“We’re exporting the edge that London has,” says Felix Barrett, Punchdrunk International’s artistic director — he set up Punchdrunk in 2000, pioneering the “immersive”, “site specific” or “promenade” theatre form that has since gone global. “I hope it feels that way. It has the grit and bite that London as a city has.”
Brand Britain is popular here. A Madame Tussauds draws busloads to Shanghai from rural China, and Burberry is a streetwear mainstay of the city’s high-fashion crowd. The appetite for that London label of theatre in China is enormous. A long way from Waterloo, the National Theatre has staged successful tours across China with productions of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and War Horse, while the Royal Shakespeare Company also enjoys a fruitful cultural exchange programme.
Immersive: Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More has proven a surprise hit
“We honestly didn’t know how the play would be received,” says Lisa Burger, executive director of the National Theatre. “We were very pleasantly surprised by the popularity of Curious Incident in China. The cast were met by crowds at stage door after every performance, and the outpouring of enthusiasm was extremely humbling. At every post-show Q&A we held, the questions asked were deeply considered thoughts about the realistic family dynamic or the domestic drama depicted in the play, and how much this resonated with Chinese audiences.”
If the NT partly owes its success here to representative storytelling, Punchdrunk’s success comes from radical escapism. Night after night, 350 wide-eyed, white-masked Shanghainese are bundled in small groups through the lift doors of the dimly lit Thirties Shanghai hotel into a three-storey tale of witchcraft and wonder.
The Punchdrunk formula is tried and tested, at once intimate and estranged: the masked “audience” members wander a 100,000 sq ft space as multiple stories play out across multiple storeys over three hours. Get lucky and stand in the right place, right time, and one of the 40-strong cast — who for the most part wilfully ignore the audience — will grab you and whisk you away into a locked side room to swing dance, whisper sweet nothings, or take part in some other disorientating ritual. “It’s the essence of Punchdrunk,” says Barrett.
"It’s total intimacy. It’s the most filmic moment, a total close-up, a secret scene for you and you alone, in which even your status as audience and as performer shifts. You get an absolute insight into that character, that mouth explaining their behaviour, but only you hear it. My hope is that it becomes tender and intimate enough that it becomes an anecdote, so that rather than saying, ‘I went to the show,’ you can say, ‘This unbelievable thing happened to me and no one else.’” After a 13-hour direct flight here, I’m also thrown into Punchdrunk’s mad world, blundering through asylum corridors, castle halls and bamboo forests, trying to make sense of the spectacle.
The city itself is a sensory overload — all twisted skyscrapers, levitating trains and frenetic street-life — so perhaps it’s no surprise that the population’s youth are obsessed with Punchdrunk’s total immersion. SMG Live had to adjust the lighting and lower the ceilings to account for the greater intimacy that China’s Punchdrunk devotees demand from the show.
“Proximity is part of the culture here,” says Barrett. “Us Brits, we like our private space. The way I watch it is by finding empty spaces, and by avoiding the crowds. Here there’s a difference psychology. Crowds aren’t seen as an imposition. In New York [Sleep No More has a run at the The McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea, Manhattan] and London this play was observed at a distance. Here, it’s participated in. That hunger and fervour is everywhere.” He’s right: I watch 30 people huddle to within inches of one actor seated at a writing desk in an ersatz private investigator’s office, each craning to peek at the notes (in English) he writes on a typewriter about a missing girl. More array themselves to watch the balletic passion of Lady Macbeth as she cavorts around an inner chamber.
Trying to align the multiple narratives requires the mental perspicuity of a horologist, but that hasn’t stopped the Shanghai faithful trying to spring the mechanism. WeChat, the popular Chinese social media site, has whole chatrooms dedicated to finding shortcuts to the performance (this isn’t strictly a Chinese phenomenon; in Boston, fans produced a “hack manual”).
I watch two audience members jostle competitively for space behind Lady Macbeth as she gazes into a mirror, presumably knowing she’ll make eye contact with one of them in the glass and “trigger” — Barrett’s word — one of Punchdrunk’s famous one-on-one performances. “They love the idea of completing it,” says Barrett, who likens the whole experience to a video game (at Punchdrunk’s incubator workshop in Tottenham, Fallow Cross, the beta testing for its future projects has involved incorporating smartphones, accrued levels and tracking devices, with the help of technology giant Google as a collaborator).
It’s a powerful form of leisurely relief in a society that spends most of the time being watched — instead, doing the watching, uninterrupted. “An audience needs to be able to get lost,” says Barrett. “I’m trying to find that point where it’s slightly out of control, where the audience is thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, am I in the right place? Is this still the right show? If it’s too contained, and they can work it out and solve it too quickly, it loses some of the magic.
“I think the dream is when an audience can’t quite navigate it, or when it takes the duration of an evening to actually root themselves. What I hope an audience gets from it is the thrill of solving a riddle of how it works. It’s like a Sudoku puzzle — if it’s easy, there’s no point in doing it.”
Barrett talks casually of a London homecoming, although there’s still no specific date set. What’s clear is that the Punchdrunk product is more potent than ever. All the world’s a stage, but modern China is at the centre. And Punchdrunk is its biggest player.