How a British Theatre Company Found a Tribe of Superfans in China

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42 - Punchdrunk_s Sleep No More, Shanghai - Camill

Punchdrunk’s mind-bending, immersive theatre has proved addictive to Shanghai locals – with some visiting over 200 times

Punchdrunk are masters at macabre, mind-bending theatre – since 2000, they’ve overtaken sites including a London tobacco warehouse and a decommissioned nuclear bunker for gleefully imaginative productions that have trawled the pitch-black underside of 60s Hollywood or channelled the gothic works of Edgar Allen Poe. But in the sprawling metropolis of Shanghai, with its Blade Runner-mix of vertiginous skyscrapers, neon light, colonial architecture and over 24 million people, the company have found a city every bit as hallucinatory as their all-enveloping shows.

Since their noir fever-dream Sleep No More landed in the Jing’An district two years ago this week, the production has gathered an obsessive tribe of superfans, who jokingly compare it to crack; some have clocked up more than 200 visits. A mash-up of Macbeth, Hitchcock and Chinese folklore that collapses the distance between spectator and performer, the play is set in a dimly lit 1930s Shanghai hotel, all low-slung couches and cloudy gilt mirrors. The audience, in Eyes Wide Shut masks, roam free across five floors, untangling clues, chasing down loose ends or simply indulging an impulse to rifle through a stranger’s bedside drawers and private letters; in a city so addicted to its smartphones, the show’s tactile immediacy might be part of its appeal.

The night we visit, an elevator opens onto an elaborate puzzle of rooms that unfold like an Escher painting. Over the next three hours, we explore a private detective agency and a royal boudoir, down Negronis in a Blue-Velvet-style nightclub, witness a forest of moving trees, flee from a lunatic asylum and stumble on a dead body in a wind-swept cemetery scattered with ruined statues. At any given moment, multiple, interweaving scenes are played out across the building by performers who fly up and down glowing red staircases, closely followed by a stampede of spectators – the cast have reportedly had to turn down opulent gifts from the most ardent among them. “The audience here are something else,” says Punchdrunk’s maverick founder Felix Barrett, who we meet in the bar for drinks post-show. “The crowd are so hungry for it, they get much, much closer than a Western audience. Once we learned how to harness that energy, the cast are almost surfing the audience now, and it flies like nowhere else. In the New York version, the whole set was absolutely trashed. But the superfans here, it’s almost like they’re hacking a videogame.”

He says the production evolved from a monster game of hide-and-seek around the space; dense with secrets, every room has a superstition hidden inside it, and at least 16 can only be accessed if a performer chooses to pluck you from the crowd. It makes for an empowering, addictive piece of theatre – untethered from seats, you can choose which characters and storylines to follow. The obsession in Shanghai is such that Punchdrunk recently added a hotel room, no. 802, to the top of the building, allowing devotees to extend their stay through the night. It’s the kind of fervour that Barrett appreciates – his career to date has been an increasingly successful battle against the passive nature of traditional theatre. “I’m interested in adrenaline as a sort of base state,” he explains. “When you’re in fight or flight mode, your body fills up with adrenaline, your blood goes to your skin, and your senses are alive, attuned and ready to go; it’s a chemical reaction. When you’re sitting down and passive, you’re only using a chunk of your brain. We want your body to receive it before your brain.”

This week Barrett is celebrating 18 years of the company he founded by publishing an encyclopaedia that covers Punchdrunk’s rise from early degree-show forays – he put on Woyzeck in an abandoned army barracks until the police turned up – to the international productions that are blowing minds from New York to China. By now they’ve spawned numerous imitators, but while those can often lean towards schlocky, house-of-horror fare, Barrett and Co’s brainchildren are closer to the woozy dreamworld of David Lynch, burrowing deep into their audience’s subconscious. Grounded in a passion for performance art and the avant-garde, they’re as rigorously intellectual and beautifully choreographed as they are entertaining. “How do you keep someone inside a dream? We want to keep you under for as long as possible,” he says. “It’s about the magic, the thickening of the atmosphere. Like being a kid exploring your grandfather’s attic, when everything feels like treasure. How do you give the audience that prickle of magic that fades as you become an adult?”

At their London research lab, a “secret village” he calls Fallow Cross, his team continue to ask those questions, tinkering with new ideas inspired by gaming that will likely point the direction for Punchdrunk’s future adventures: “If Sleep No More is film length, an evening out, what would the TV show be, where there’s five seasons over three months?” muses Barrett. His own stag-do might prove an inspiration – it was a six-month affair that began with a mysterious key, involved digging up a chest on the shores of the Thames and climaxed with him being given electro-shock therapy in the woods by a fictional masked cult. In the same way, Punchdrunk’s next act is likely to stretch time and spill into the real world, in amorphous and unexpected ways. “We ask our audience to explore, to go further, to take risks,” says Barrett. “We need to take risks ourselves and find those unchartered places.”

Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, co-produced by SMG Live is on at the McKinnon Hotel, Shanghai.