NIGHT SWEAT at Fringe is a confident, confusing look at what it means to sleepwalk

Michelle McCowage shows us what it's like to sleepwalk.


Kicking off my Melbourne Fringe Festival experience was Night Sweat, an avant-garde solo performance delving into different realms of human consciousness.

Simultaneously playful and depressing, writer and performer Michelle McCowage creates a funny but emotive show full of random musings on life, intertwined with bizarre re-enactments of their own sleepwalking experiences.

McCowage was already in character as we entered the room, lying flat on the ground in the middle between the rows of seats. The performance was preceded by a melodic, meditative introduction led by the set’s musician Kyle Muir, and not dissimilar to that of a sleep-inducing hypnosis video, Muir guides us to draw our attention to the present moment and our star performer settled flat on the floor, the “figure” in front of us.

The only star–besides Muir–was Michelle, who also wrote the show. The room was small and intimate, yet Night Sweat was able to transform the unassuming space into an all-encompassing sensory experience, spraying our hands with tea tree and lavender upon entry to mask the lingering smell of the restaurant we were situated right behind. The creative use of strobe lighting throughout the scenes to show the transition from waking consciousness to dreamlike–or nightmarish–state.

The show was an intimation of the human experience, intertwined with recollections of bouts of sleepwalking and niche everyday observations. McCowage fuses the sentimental and the bizarre from their own life to create an immersive production, yet with still relatable concepts (hot takes on queer literature, etc), still maintaining the most prevalent motif of their sleepwalking experiences.

Easily the best part of the show was McCowage. Despite limited space, they owned the makeshift stage with impressive, controlled physicality, and although technically playing themselves, showed a lot of range in their fifty-minute performance.

They had an incredibly charismatic stage presence and were able to shift the mood swiftly from light-hearted to existential–from visualising conversations with terrifying childhood icon Angela Anaconda to fondly describing visits to their grandmother’s home. The ability to command and maintain attention from the audience as the only performer is no easy feat, but they did it naturally, and well.

At the end of the show, though, I was just confused. At times I found it hard to follow: the rapid stylistic transitions from abstract poetic verse to scenes with just movement didn’t feel entirely cohesive. It felt almost unfinished, or disjointed–but on reflection, maybe that was the point. McCowage recalled being part of a research study in their youth to find a scientific explanation for their sleepwalking, but the ECG and abundance of electrodes showed nothing–I suppose, like McCowage’s vivid sleepwalking experiences, some things just don’t have concrete explanations. The show is a realistic depiction of a stream of consciousness, rapidly shifting from one subject or intangible feeling to another, without any real conclusion.

Bookended with a soothing singing number from McCowage, the show had a perfect ending. The show felt like a meditation on the nebulous nature of the human experience that, while certainly confusing and incoherent at times, was ultimately self-aware of its absurdity.

Night Sweat ran at Melbourne Fringe Festival from 4 to 8 October.

Photo was provided by show producer Liv Bell, taken by photographer Ainsley Halbmeijer.

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