By a set of large, nondescript doors, a line starts to form. Our hands are stamped and we are led inside to be relieved of our belongings. Onwards, then, to where we are checked in.
“Welcome to the McKittrick Hotel.” A polite smile as she takes my name. “Is this your first stay with us?”
I am handed a playing card, an ace, and told it is my room key. I’m ushered on. Another attendant clips the corner of my card and hands it back to me. She gestures me up a short flight of stairs and into a dark corridor. My eyes struggle to adjust as I fall into pitch darkness. I reach out blindly and feel a felt-clad wall on either side of me. The ominous music envelops me as I continue through the winding corridor, feeling my way as I go, before all but stumbling into the Manderley Bar.
The deep red interiors feel akin to a speakeasy and I’m instantly set at ease. I have passed the first test – for if I could not make it through a pitch-black tunnel, I would surely not survive the night. It is still largely empty, a handful of people scattered across the tables surrounding an empty stage. Later, the bar will be full and a jazz ensemble will take to the stage, but the festivities have not yet begun.
For something to do with myself, and to calm my nerves, I order a champagne cocktail and perch on a high-top table off to the side to observe those coming in. There is an obvious mix of first-timers, like myself, and those who have more of an idea of what is to come. I watch as a family, a mother, a father and their grown-up daughter, are offered a shot of absinthe. Their looks of alarm make me chuckle – I can see myself and my parents in their shoes, were we here together. Although I suspect my parents would not cope in such a place.
Time seems to become an illusion, a feeling that will remain throughout the course of the night. I have nothing in my possession anymore, save for my credit card and the ace tucked in my fist.
I don’t notice them at first: the tall gentleman in the tuxedo and the elegantly-dressed woman who weave their way through the forming crowds. The gentleman gives me a nod as he passes and I’m almost inclined to follow him. I catch myself – I’m not inside yet.
The man takes to the stage and in a silky voice invites welcomes us to the Manderley Bar at the McKittrick Hotel. He calls upon the aces and gestures towards the far side of the room. I push through the crowd but am a little too late. The first group goes ahead and the woman I had noticed earlier asks me to wait. She holds my gaze just a moment too long and I feel I should say something.
“I love your dress,” I tell her honestly, as her 1920s-style flapper dress catches in the light.
“Thank you,” she gushes and offers me a hand. “What’s your name?”
The next group is called in. I am handed a white mask with large holes cut out around the eyes and a beak-like raised section over the mouth. I don’t need to be told what to do with it and I slide it over my face. I take a deep breath in.
We are given rules. Masks are to remain on. There will be no phones and no cameras. There will be no talking.
“Fortune favours the bold,” we are reminded, more than once, as we are led into an elevator.
I cannot even begin to tell whether we are going up or down. We stop at a floor and someone is let off. The group is held back. The doors slide shut and she is left alone as we descend – or ascend? – onwards. I am near the back of the elevator and form part of what I think is the last group.
“You look like you will be fortunate tonight,” our guide tells us as he looks us over. His gaze stops on one woman. “You, not so much.”
The doors slide open and I step forward. The people around me seem at a loss as to which way to go. I don’t hesitate and take off through the first door I see. I’m hyper-aware of the sound of my own breathing.
I step into a graveyard. Lights beam up from the floor and my own shadow is cast across the room. I walk through the room, glancing behind me every so often, sure that someone is following me. There is no one there. I step through a curtain where a visibly pregnant woman in a green dress takes a seat on the sofa.
There are a few others standing around the outskirts of the room – they have followed her from somewhere but from where I do not know. I find myself uninterested in the other masked figures standing around me and focus on her.
She looks around the group and then fixes her gaze on me. She reaches out a hand. I don’t let the opportunity pass me by, stepping forward and taking it. She leads me into a locked cupboard at the side of the room and closes the door behind her.
“Let me see your face,” she murmurs and removes me mask.
I blink. I had only been under there for mere minutes but I feel strangely exposed without it.
She touches my face and then guides me to kneel by an open bible. “When you were a child,” she begins, dipping her fingers into a pot and then touching them behind my ear. “I used to put salt behind your ear for protection.” I can smell the salt, feel the grains trickling down the side of my neck.
She guides me to stand again. She tears a page from the bible and folds it into a pouch which she hands to me. She proceeds to pour the contents of a salt shaker into the pouch, folding it closed and wrapping my hands around it, and hers around mine.
She closes her eyes and mumbles some kind of prayer, or incantation, and I find myself instinctively closing mine and bowing my head, though I am not even religious. For a moment, she stares at me and then she slides my mask back on and unlocks the door.
Most of the previous onlookers from the room have moved on but a few more are passing through and they start when we emerge from the cupboard. She takes off into a bedroom and I trail behind helplessly, still clutching the pouch of salt. As she packs a suitcase, I tuck the salt into my pocket, and then she is off out of the door.
I linger in the room, looking at the papers on the desk. One wall is glass and looks into an almost identical bedroom but with a blood-soaked bed. I decide to move on.
In the hallway, I catch sight of my own masked reflection for the first time and I startle, scarcely recognising myself. I look away and hurry down the hallway. There are several other bedrooms, some I can enter, some I can’t. One is clearly a child’s. They are empty and I keep going.
I reach a staircase but I don’t know whether to go up or down, don’t even know which floor I’m on. I start going up when a man tears past me downstairs. I turn and follow, which is no easy task when he is sprinting a known route and I have no way of knowing where I’m going. We go down the stairs, through a hallway, up a steep staircase to where a makeshift tent sits. Inside, an older man lies on the cushions. I understand him to be dead before the young man I’d been following and another lift him and carry him into a room with a coffin and place him inside.
A little later, I will see the older man dancing with an older woman in the deserted ballroom before he returns to his coffin. The ballroom is lined with spruce trees, whether for the season or a permanent fixture, I’m not sure but the smell is overpowering and serves to calm any residual nerves.
If memory serves, I find myself next in the lobby of the hotel. Off to one side is a restaurant in which the older woman who danced appears to be trying to poison the pregnant woman with a glass of milk. Their dance is elaborate in a small space and the onlookers scatter this way and that as they tussle.
I wander out of the scene to watch the bellhop, instead. He darts in and out of three telephone booths, drawing curtains seemingly at random. The bellhop, the older woman, and the pregnant woman dart in and out of this area. At some point, Lady Macbeth and, I believe, Macbeth himself appear, in the throes of passion, and bring with them a hefty amount of the audience. I stand back out of the way and wait for the space to clear out.
When it does, and there is only one other masked member lurking nearby, I dart into a telephone booth and draw the curtain. It is an old-fashioned phone, the kind you turn for every number. I lift the receiver and pause. I have not seen any numbers anywhere to call. I return the receiver and slip out of the booth.
I slip into the next one and am braver this time. I dial the operator and wait. Somewhere, I hear a phone ringing. I hold my breath.
I hang up, my hand shaking.
I try the third booth and the same thing happens. I hang up when I hear the ringing begin and slip out.
I take a little time around the lobby, ducking behind the reception desk to flick through the guest log and look at the keys. If any of them lead anywhere, I wouldn’t know where to start. I continue on.
This is where things begin to blur a little. I believe this was around the time I found myself in the town of Gallow Green. I believe I found myself there by following a man in a waistcoat who rushed past me with a briefcase, locking himself briefly in a room in which he did let me follow. Within the town, I found a veritable speakeasy, a detective’s office, a tailor’s, a taxidermist’s. A sweet shop with such a saccharine aroma that I nearly gagged.
It was a never-ending loop of doors and shops. I stepped into what appeared to be a bedroom where one audience member sat on the bed looking a little dumbstruck as to what to do next, and watched as another stepped into a wardrobe. I followed and found myself in the back room of an embalmers. Another door took me into a crowded tailors shop, several people turning to look at me with surprise in their eyes as I appeared through the wall.
Lady Macbeth breezed past at some point in a long red dress. I didn’t see that much of her – at some stage, she was singing in an abandoned, dusty version of the Manderely Bar to a small crowd but I quickly lost her again after that.
More than once, I looped through a ruined garden filled with statues. Frequently, I would reach out to touch them, sure that at any moment they might start moving. I glanced in one the glass-walled room adjacent, with the infamous bathtub, but I only ever saw that scene in snippets, as it was always crowded.
In general, my approach to Sleep No More was largely to explore and I spent very little time following the action, least of all the central characters. Whether this was a mistake, I don’t know, but there was something altogether too tempting about separating from the large group that was always trailing Lady Macbeth and instead seeing where I might end up.
I did, eventually, find my way to the hospital ward. The disinfectant smell was pungent as I walked down a corridor of locked rooms and then round into what I presume was the psychiatric wing. I nearly stepped into the padded room and then turned and briskly walked onwards. More than once, I encountered the nurse in her hut in the forest, and followed her through the maze when she went to write her message onto the wooden pillar.
I passed the ballroom once briefly while couples danced across the floor, but I kept on walking. I had a good idea that it was not yet the final cycle of the performance and that I had more still to go.
By the third cycle, however, I was more aware of repetitions. Passing through the hotel lobby, I frequently seemed to encounter the same things I’d already seen, the continued poisoning now moved to the reception side of the room.
I was sure there was more to be seen in the town of Gallow Green although unsure of where to go. At the point at which I was starting to tire, starting to be entirely unsure of where to go or what to do, I found myself back in the speakeasy.
The gentleman I’d seen before, with the briefcase, appeared and began tidying up, pouring drinks. I decided to wait it out. Soon, three young men would appear and begin to play a seemingly incomprehensible card game that seemed to involve switching seats and nailing playing cards to an already crowded wall. I stepped back against the wall and watched on even as the room filled up.
A murder would occur there, which I realised before the event. I’d been in the speakeasy before, you see, except that when I was, there had been a bloodied brick on the pool table. This was no longer there – or, should I say, not yet there.
The murder passed, and the murderer rushed out. A few audience members went to inspect the dead body but I doubted there would be much to see there. Following out of the room a little aimlessly, I didn’t realise I was leading myself to the finale.
We were all ushered down to the ballroom in such a way as to not feel as though we were being pushed there – as though this was entirely our own volition, a fitting end to the past three hours. A feast was occurring on the raised platform in the ballroom, the light cast reflecting against hundreds of white masks as we watched on.
The finale had us leaving the room with a body swinging, hanged from the neck, above our heads. We shuffled back towards the bar where the silky-voiced gentleman who had instructed us inside greeted us back to the land of the living.
“Welcome back, my darlings,” he said to each of us as we appeared. “It’s so good to see you again.”
I did not linger in the bar long, although the temptation of a live jazz ensemble and another drink were there. But I needed to process, outside of this building. Almost more overwhelming than all was the incredible noise of a hundred voices echoing together as I waited to collect my things in the tight hallway that led outside.
I closed my eyes and leaned my head against the wall, mask clutched between my hands, playing card in one pocket, salt in the other. I had not heard a human voice in almost three hours, not since the pregnant woman had spoken to me, and now it was almost too much, to have so many surrounding me.
I am sure to have forgotten things in this account. Even reading it back now, I remember, too, a naked woman walking past me into what I think may have been a botanist’s. I remember passing a naked man curled up in the corner of a shower and then being helped into a robe by an audience member. I watched the taxidermist, incidentally the same man who had taken us on the elevator so long ago, lock something into a desk drawer.
I retraced my steps more than once, and got lost repeatedly. I found passages leading to rooms I’d been to before from an entirely different way, and I read countless letters and notes scattered around.
Whereas in some rooms, I ignored the other masked patrons as nothing but the watchers-on, in others I might catch myself watching them as they sifted through documents in a desk or tinkered with items. As though they knew something I didn’t, that I might learn by watching them.
I never figured out what I ought to have done with the phones. I never found the witches. If there was something sinister within that ruined garden, I never saw that, either.
Fortune favours the bold.
So it does, and I feel I went boldly. I saw many people pass me by, clutching their friend or partner tightly, walking as a fixed unit, and I shook my head. Even if I had come with a friend, I doubt I would have seen them again after the graveyard until we reconvened in the bar. This is an experience best taken with complete autonomy and freedom to follow whatever hunch you might have.
I undoubtedly want to return to the McKittrick and seek out corners and pathways I didn’t fully explore. I want to find that abandoned version of the Manderely again and I’m determined to see these witches. Perhaps I might even follow a character long enough to be able to figure out what on earth was going on, too, but that remains to be seen.