The sandman doesn’t throw sand in your eyes to help you sleep, oh no. That’s just what parents want children to believe so they aren’t scared of the real sandman. The real sandman is horrible. If you’re still awake, he steals your eyes and puts them into his little bag and takes them up to his little, bald bird-children who live on the moon. Then they eat them.
T. A. Hoffmann, celebrated German gothic horror author, wrote short story “The Sandman” in 1816. Featuring automatons, folklore, love, childhood trauma and obsession, it tells the tragic downfall of Nathaniel, who couldn’t let go of his boyhood fear of the sandman, personified in his father’s malformed colleague, Coppelius.
Adie Mueller and Mike Carter adapt and modernise this short story into a one-woman show of the same name that eschews linear narrative in favour of a disturbing, extremely fragmented chaos. Mueller skillfully performs the eight characters that appear in the story, but the show requires a lot of thinking and patience to decipher the truth behind the numerous perspectives.
In the programme, Mueller and Carter state, “The woman knows that this story is too much for her and she needs you, the audience. The story bursts out of her and comes at you in fragments, randomly and out of chronological sequence. You will have to play your part in piecing them together, finding the overarching narrative, and search beyond reason to make meaning from them.” This is a nice idea to draw the audience into a one-person show and make them feel needed, but for the tired and those that want to sit back and be entertained/scared, it’s hard work. It also serves as a distraction from the lack of clarity of the audience’s function and relationship to the performer, a vital element of one-person performance. Requiring us to sift through the pieces of story strewn before us has no benefit to the performance or the piece; it would be delivered identically whether the audience understands or not. Director Carter chooses to keep the house lights on so Meuller can make eye contact, but there is no direct dialogue. What does she want from us? Why are we hearing this story? It is never revealed.
Mueller’s performance draws attention away from these shortcomings, and it’s an excellent one. Her use of physical storytelling and character differentiation comes easily, and shows a high level of skill and training. Clad in white, she cuts a powerful image in the Etcetera’s small black box, adding to the chaos with her violent use of creepy props.
The story modernizes well, with a focus on sexual dysfunction, technology and its grim intersection. The characters evoke empathy, particularly Nathaniel, who we see as a scared child and an adult obsessed with his lecturer’s “daughter” Olympia. Though his behaviour is appalling, he is a victim of his past rather than a calculating psychopath. His attempts to maintain a normal relationship with human being Clara are thwarted by reoccurring psychotic episodes…or are they real? The prospect of an alternative, tormenting reality that haunts Nathaniel is deliciously spooky. The Sandman is creepily unsettling and despite the effort needed to work out what is happening, the performances and characters make up for the jagged structure.