In 2014, “excess” is a dirty word. Excess is scary. The velvet-adorned dandy’s fetish for decadence and overabundance feels ghostly, foreign and comical. And if we haven’t rid ourselves of the trappings of excess, we nevertheless prefer to hide rather than flaunt it, seeing in it the root and symptom of so many modern tribulations: global warming, obesity, over-population. With a heightened sense of finiteness in the world, extravagance seems less and less like a guilty pleasure; more and more a violation of common decency. Indulgence is uncomfortable. Right now our street fashion is minimalist and cynical. Our pop music – plumbing the stripped-back tropes of trap, house and minimal R’n’B – is frequently skeletal, exposed and efficient. The visual and 3D arts continue to favour minimalism and clean lines over lavish ornamentation; block colour over realist complexity. I have no beef with any of that, because both elegant simplicity and a healthy distaste for wastefulness are good. But sometimes excess is good, too. And sometimes excess in art is vital.
I say so as a means of untangling the strange tether I feel linking two experiences I had this week. I had them in the only city I could reasonably have had them in: New York City, the global capital of outlandish cultural phenomena.
Thursday night I get a cab to Madison Square Garden. The cab isn’t really necessary – the apartment I’m staying at is within walking distance, and big concerts never start right on time – but I get the cab anyway. Yellow New York cabs are still a Seinfeld-evoking novelty at this point. Inside Madison Square Garden, which is neither a square nor a garden and I’m unsure where Madison fits in, the throng moves towards the various arena doors or lines up along the kiosk bars, as per a sports match. The band’s merchandise adorns the torsos of thousands of silver-haired devotees, marching, grinning towards their seats in the vast stadium. After an ominous, loud and lengthy bass drone that would seem to have wandered in from a Sunn0))) concert somewhere, a tremendous white curtain lifts, sucked into the giant steel ring from which it was draped. There, on the stage, blasting the first chord of “Now I’m Here” are QUEEN.
The atmosphere is ridiculous. The room is a billowing sea of cheers, squeals and screams. The sound of the band is huge – probably the loudest live band sound I’ve ever heard, although the size of the arena dilutes its direct impact on the eardrum, and it hits you directly in the rock-bone. This is how this sort of music is made to be heard, and it takes on a fresh life. In full view: original guitarist, Brian May, and original drummer Roger Taylor; slightly off to the side are bonus keys, bass and percussion players, long-time collaborators but not official band members. Of course, the real question on everyone’s lips is how will this whole thing fly without Freddie Mercury? The band has recruited former American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert to step into those hallowed shoes, and bigger shoes you’d be hard-pressed to find. I have to admit I approach the show with more than a modicum of skepticism. Lambert emerges in quintessential rockstar regalia (studded leather jacket, leather pants and gloves, collar, sunglasses) and opens his mouth. Clearly I had nothing to worry about. This guy’s voice is a bolt of electricity, his range unbelievable. Preconceptions, vague as they were, are irrelevant now. In this context at least, Lambert is all flamboyant charisma and acrobatic vocal power.
They churn through mega-hits (“Another One Bites the Dust, Fat Bottomed Girls”) and lesser-known tunes like “Love of My Life,” “39” and “These Are The Days of Our Lives” which provide an opportunity for Lambert to disappear backstage and for May and Taylor to field singing duties, perform acoustically at the end of the stage’s long catwalk, and pay tribute to their fallen frontman of yore.
Those moments provide a useful dynamic shift and a well-warranted mood of bittersweet Freddie-homage, and the inevitable mid-set show-off antics (featuring a drum battle between Roger Taylor and son Rufus Tiger, a 20-minute Brian May interstellar shred-solo, and surpassing both a very tasteful bass solo by Nigel Fairclough) are part of the requisite rockstar pomp. But Queen are at their best in full operatic mode, showcasing their remarkable songs and arrangements with a playful grandiosity and unironic enthusiasm. So it is when Lambert reappears in a ludicrous shiny-fringed coat and platform heels to belt out “Killer Queen,” which he does lying on a purple velvet chaise-lounge and drinking champagne, soon projectile-spitting the latter onto the audience, that the set really soars. For Lambert, moments like these achieve a double effect: firstly of playfully acknowledging Mercury’s campy aesthetic, and secondly – conversely – of giving Lambert his own sense of fearless frontperson autonomy, whereby he can inhabit Freddie’s legacy without coming off as an impersonator. Lambert injects evident deference into tunes like “Love Kills” from Queen’s Metropolis soundtrack, and the epic “Who Wants To live Forever;” he also injects plenty of his own idiosyncrasies and sass into the more bombastic moments. Is Lambert as good as Mercury? Of course not – but between his miraculous voice and animated, unfazed, glammed-out presence, you couldn’t hope for a much better understudy.
Predictably, the set climaxes with magnum opus “Bohemian Rhapsody” (in which Lambert and a hologram-Freddie share vocal duties), and anthems “We Will Rock You,” and “We Are The Champions”; the final, explosive chord sees yellow confetti erupt from numerous cannons and rain down on the whole 18,000-seat arena. Brian May’s ever-so-British modesty and quiet humour are endearing, but without a larger-than-life presence in Mercury’s role, the show would have felt like a deflated party balloon. There’s plenty of distaste in the independent/art music world for rock-star nonsense, but Queen have always been more than big riffs, solos and egos: they made the bloated rock concert into an art form of its own, dramatically and surreally conflated with opera, blues, science fiction, humour and a surprising earnestness. 2014 Queen could never compete with its former self, nor does the band aim to: but I’m glad to say none of those vital elements have been lost. Rather than making a modest re-entry, bringing out a new singer who shyly shrinks in Mercury’s shadow, the show succeeds because – not in spite of – its vaudevillian extravagance.
Two nights later I approach an enigmatic and almost-unmarked doorway at the base of a tall red-brick building ¬in Chelsea. A tiny plaque identifies it as “The McKittrick Hotel.” Upon entering, I’m ushered along a dark corridor and handed a playing card. They say it’s my “room key.” A man in a tuxedo hole-punches it and I walk through a series of winding, dizzying, almost pitch-black corridors before I emerge in a swinging, golden-lit jazz bar bedecked with red velvet, cocktails and a grand piano. A woman offers me absinthe, and a man named Jasper in a white suit greets me – “hello, darling” – but before I can get comfortable I’m whisked into a nearby elevator. Another suited man hands out white, featureless masks to everyone in the hotel lift and tells us to put them on. He informs us there will be no talking, and that there is no right or wrong way to explore the hotel – simply be curious, and beware: the hotel is not always as it seems. When we reach the third floor, we are ushered out into a half-lit corridor that trickles out into a vast, yawning ballroom where jazz plays and about a dozen beautiful people in suits and gowns dance on lavish parquetry. This is SLEEP NO MORE.
The ball lasts a few more minutes before most of its attendees spin off and the lights drop; the remaining couple suddenly engage in a warped and sinister caper. I scurry on. There is a room full of books, an enormous bed, a writing desk with a letter addressed to “your highness.” Everything looks like it was time-warped here from the 1920s, or from a strange gothic film noir. There is a lobby – like every other room, cloaked in shadow – where keys, candles and old portraits line the walls, and an old maid crushes strange powders in a mortar and pestle, stirring it into liquid. A pregnant woman from the ball enters. Though she and her husband dance wildly in a flurry of indecision, she eventually resolves to drink the solution, and falls somewhat sickly onto the sofa. Beyond her there are old-fashioned phone booths; in rooms beyond, there are beds, cots, a giddy array of period décor, strange objects and live characters moving about the hotel in silence.
I explore the hotel, as much of it as I can: it is labyrinthine, vast, and invariably dark. There is a fog-filled cemetery where ominous sounds echo and humanoid stone figures leer at you within a brick-and-dirt maze. On the fifth floor there is an abandoned lunatic asylum with black feathers pinned into the wall of a padded cell, a hospital, a witch’s occult workshop and a winding forest with a hut at its far end where a nurse pulls guests in and slams the door, the internal goings on mysterious to all masked onlookers. In one tiny room, a black pram is descended upon by scores of headless baby mannequins. In another, dozens of taxidermied animals look upon you while a dapper detective dusts for prints. There is a lolly shop, winding staircases, secret bars, rooms full of enigmatic crates and hay, rooms full of ghostly torn sheets and a glaring stuffed fox.
At last I find a large room with a bathtub and a large corner bed. There, a woman in black dances in an altercation with her bearded husband before he finally leaves the room and returns, covered in blood. Naked, he bathes in the tub and retreats to the bed: the woman joins him, but he leaves, and in a fit of anxiety she strips down and bathes frantically herself. I pick up a letter that lies near the bathtub – it is addressed from a man to his wife. It is signed “MacBeth.”
I’ll refrain from exposing much more, lest anyone reading might find themselves in New York – or anywhere this immersive play one day travels to – because if the opportunity arises, it utterly must not be missed, and it helps not to know too much in advance. Suffice it to say that Sleep No More is part contemporary dance, part Borgesian hypertext, part real-life video game, part haunted mansion, part Shakespearean adaptation that slowly and obliquely reveals itself – moreso if you go hunting, peeking into drawers and keyholes. And nothing I’ve said is figurative – this all literally takes place in an enormous building (though it’s actually several converted warehouses, with only partial resemblance to a hotel inside) with a hundred-odd/hundred odd rooms to delve into and at least a dozen distinctive scenes sprawled throughout, enacted by twenty or so performers. With all visitors hidden behind ghostly white masks, and not a word uttered over the three-hour duration, the experience is truly bizarre. The word “surreal” is used too liberally to describe unusual work or experiences, but is almost insufficient here: to enter a full-scale, three-dimensional world that is both fiction and reality, where one is lost and astonished and entirely discombobulated, immersed, fixated – it feels impossible, and liberating. Sleep No More is without a doubt one of the most ambitious and remarkable works of art I have ever experienced.
From stadium rock to massive-scale immersive theatre, it has been a few days of sensory overload and jaw-dropping artistic extravagance. In both cases, a certain immoderation was crucial. Not simply to impress or impose, but to viscerally break through the sense of everyday reality and suck you violently into a new, vividly curated, intense and immense world. Restraint and subtlety can’t always get you where you need to go; sometimes more is more. Sometimes, excess is just the right amount.