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Jo Caird: To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

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Lullaby, which I saw this week at the Barbican, invites theatregoers to pack their toothbrush and pyjamas and spend the night in the Pit. The show you watch from your bed, which features comedy dancing octopi, storytelling and songs, as well as befuddling lectures on the planets and human nervous system, is designed to lull you to sleep, as well as entertain. You’re then woken the next morning for breakfast in the theatre’s green room, before being sent upon your bleary-eyed way.

I can’t say that I enjoyed every moment of Lullaby ­– more on that later – but I can tell you that it was an extraordinary experience, reminiscent of teenage sleepovers, nursery school naptime and bizarre evenings of performance art all at once. It’s sold out, but if you can get hold of a return, I urge you to do so.

Part of the reason I was so excited about the show was that a couple of months ago I attended another theatre production that involved sleeping and was therefore very curious to see further experiments with the genre (can just two pieces of work be called a genre?). Drylands is the second part in a trilogy of work called Hotel Medea, based on the Medea story, by theatre company Zecora Ura (I saw it on its own at Trinity Buoy Wharf in April as part of the Digital Stages Festival, but the whole trilogy is being staged at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer).

In that show the audience was split into groups, with one group taken to watch a scene, and another further split so that an actor each took charge of a pair of audience members, taking them by the hand and leading them, as if they were small children (Medea’s children, in fact), to one of a number of bunk beds set up on the periphery of the scene mentioned above. The audience members were then dressed in pyjamas and put to bed, where they were given a mug of hot chocolate, read a bedtime story (also based on the Medea myth) and told to go to sleep.

The scene being played out on the other side of the room was quite exciting, but every time I sat up in bed to try to get a proper glimpse of the action, I was soothed and stroked by the actor playing ‘my’ nurse. What I found so interesting was my own reaction to this unusual experience: I not only didn’t have a problem with being coddled by a stranger, but actively enjoyed the feeling of giving in to the theatrical scenario happening around and to me. Ultimately, I was relaxed enough to nearly fall asleep.

What worked so well in both Duckie’s (the company behind Lullaby) and Zecora Ura’s experiments with theatre and sleeping, I think, was the paradoxical version of interactive theatre on offer. Rather than encouraging traditional, active participation in the work (as was in fact required in non-sleeping-related parts of both shows), a sort of passive interaction was sought. Audience members were invited to take part in the action by not taking part at all, by abandoning consciousness and agency altogether in the act of sleeping.

This process involves an act of trust on the part of the audience as they make themselves vulnerable by handing over full responsibility to the theatre-makers. It is this sense of risk-taking, of absolute engagement, that makes good interactive theatre so thrilling to be part of, whatever the specifics of the show; the fact that sleeping is involved only ups the ante further. Which explains not just my positive experiences at these two shows, but also the fact that there were aspects of Lullaby that I found wanting. 

The section of the performance that was intended to send me to sleep did so remarkably well, but the moment that the action finally tailed off – when my hours of uninterrupted slumber were supposed to begin – I started tossing and turning and ended up lying awake half the night. From my conversations with fellow audience members over breakfast the next morning, I can report that I was not alone in my insomnia.

Partly to blame was the fact that it was roasting in the theatre that night, but I’m sure this wasn’t the only factor. Having played along with Duckie and let myself be soothed to sleep as part of a truly involving, collective theatre experience, when the action was finished, I found myself feeling isolated and alone in my sleepless state. It was only when we were awakened in the morning to share in the glee of a charming surprise (which I won’t spoil here; tweet me if you want to know what it is) that the wonderful excitement of relinquishing agency in interactive theatre came back to me.

I offer this less as a criticism of this particular show – it would be unreasonable, I suspect, to ask that the performance continue throughout the night – and more as an observation of the profound effect that interactive theatre can have on audiences willing to make themselves vulnerable and fully engage in a piece of work.


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