Hedonism in Shanghai: Is this the most taboo take on Shakespeare yet?
From hypermodern, twisted skyscrapers and levitating trains to frenetic street-life, a visit to Shanghai can result in sensory overload.
So where better for an Asian premier of "experiential theater" from Punchdrunk -- a group that has been exploding traditional notions of performance for over 15 years and strives to leave audiences feeling exactly like their name after a performance?
Since December, visitors to the fictitious McKinnon Hotel in the city's Jing'an district have been transported into the 1930s to experience "Sleep No More," an unconventional, cinematic live production based on Shakespeare's "Macbeth."
The members of the audience are hotel "guests" who become part of the atmospheric production once they enter the hotel and don a mask.
They can then explore around 90 rooms spread across six floors, and even wander through a bustling street market complete with dimly lit alleyways. The building itself took more than a year to transform from the shell of a building -- originally intended to be an actual hotel -- into Punchdrunk's stylized time capsule, where all traces of the outside world are shut out.
"It's the biggest build we've ever undertaken with specificity from the ground up," says Felix Barrett, Punchdrunk's artistic director. "It's one of things we've dreamt about."
'A crescendo of design'
The cast is made up of a mix of international and Chinese performers, and every detail of the evocative era's opulence and austerity has been meticulously created.
Each room in the "hotel" has something new to discover, as each prop was selected to be in keeping with the era and atmosphere. The result is a trove of carefully realized oriental and occidental design, from Lady Macbeth's black silk evening gown to tincture bottles filled with traditional Chinese medicines and the fizzing neon signs of the market.
To Barrett, it's "a crescendo of design," the opposite of "look, but don't touch."
The audience can peep behind faded gold gilt picture frames and discover secret messages, while other clues to the unfolding narrative could lie inside a cast member's breast pocket or silk clutch purse -- all of them adding to the performance as it unfolds throughout the building.
Barrett first brought his version of immersive theatre to the UK in 2000, pitching up in all sorts of unlikely spaces -- disused factories and decommissioned nuclear bunkers among them -- with adaptations of classical literature and plays, from Chekhov and Edgar Allan Poe to Shakespeare. It spread abroad in 2011 with "Sleep No More at The McKittrick Hotel," which is still running in New York.
An immersive experience
This creation in Shanghai, however, is the ultimate for Barrett. His trips to Asia over the years, China particularly, inspired so much of what Punchdrunk is about.
"Maybe because the nature of compact cities is they have a more exploratory and adventurous side in their fabric; they often are built upwards so it's all layered on top of each other," he says. "McKinnon is literally built for this town."
The production is a partnership with major Chinese media company SMG. It eased the path to finding the location and securing permits to perform in a previously disused building.
With "locked room" adventures now fairly familiar to young Chinese urbanites, and having been thrilled by "The McKittrick Hotel" in New York, Luke Ma of SMG had no fears that Shanghai would be ready for a Punchdrunk production.
"People here are always looking to experience the new," he says.
As the show is now sold out, with new performances to be added, it seems he has been proven right.