Sandman

Thu 17th – Mon 28th August 2017

reviews

Dan Mahoney

at 23:28 on 17th Aug 2017

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‘Sandman’ is weird. Like, really weird. It’s a borderline insane hour of theatre, adapting E.T.A Hoffman’s already strange gothic story of obsession and succeeding in turning it stranger still in a mercurial one woman show. At times, it’s a bit too odd for its own good, but the whole thing comes together to create a wholly unique and off-kilter experience that won’t be forgotten in a hurry.

Did I mention it was weird though? A one-woman show starring Adie Mueller created in collaboration with playwright/director Mike Carter, Mueller plays multiple characters stretching from a 10 year old boy to something known on the cast list only as ‘Bird Monster’. The show really asks a heck of a lot from Mueller, acting out sex acts on stage one moment and stalking around singing a nightmarish version of the Chordettes’ ‘Mr Sandman’ with a grotesque slurping lisp the next. And that’s not even beginning to mention the parts where a child’s doll whispers into her ear and she speaks for it like we’re in The Sooty Show. As the show progresses, she chucks clothes, eyeballs and tea sets around the stage to reform and distort the space, and generally confuse and disorient the audience.

All very strange, but oddly effective in its own way. Mueller gives every second of the performance her all, inhabiting the very varied characters the show asks of her admirably. Occasionally there would be a moment where I wasn’t entirely sure who was meant to be speaking. But these were rare and fleeting as Mueller threw herself into her characters, skilfully shifting perspectives at the drop of a hat. Attempting to understand the story being told here is intentionally difficult, especially if, like me, you’re not familiar with the original story before watching. For the most part, the tale being told seems similar enough to that of Hoffman’s short story, but the storytelling plays with perspective and time to make for a wholly different experience. Although the unusual narrative techniques on display here can add to the atmosphere of otherworldliness and unease that I think the production is going for, it can be a little too obtuse at times, and I left the theatre more confused than I think was intended.

‘Sandman’ is certainly one of the most unique things I’ve seen at the Fringe, and I definitely don’t think it’s for everyone. I enjoyed it in its own strange way, but that does come with the caveat that I’m quite weird myself, so maybe my word counts for naught in this context. I wouldn’t say that ‘Sandman’ is scary per say, but it does have an undeniable atmosphere around it of a world that’s just off kilter. If you’re looking for something a bit unusual powered by a leading actor firing on all demented cylinders, then it’s definitely worth checking out.

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Eloise Heath

at 13:19 on 22nd Aug 2017

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In the trailer for Adie Mueller and Mike Carter’s reimagining of Hoffman’s gothic tale they quote the original author: “nothing is more marvellous or madder than real life”. Indeed ‘Sandman’ is an hour of marvellousness and madness; the former in places, the latter pervasively throughout.

I think ‘weird’ is a term bandied around too readily today, but here it is well and truly justified. This play is seriously weird. Mueller becomes each of the story’s characters, one by one, switching between them with increasing rapidity. Swept along as she adopts each on a rotation, I feel as if I am experiencing an exceptionally queasy carousel ride.

Whilst somewhat dizzying, the adaptation in itself works. Transforming Hoffman’s short story into a series of interweaving monologues, it retells the narrative in a non-linear fashion. Resultantly, you have to concentrate very hard to cling to the thread of what’s actually happening. The use of a rack of costumes on hangers, each garment denoting a different character, is simple yet brilliant. Mueller never puts them on, they are simply taken from the wrack, and laid on the stage. This is a succinct and elegant measure to clarify the different characters.

The set is a strange accumulation of props: a stool, a tea set, a beer mug, a barbie. All are thrown and kicked around, the stage oscillating between neat order and chaotic clutter as Mueller repeatedly scatters and regathers them. The staging feels dynamic, and the use of puppetry is artful; genuinely creepy rather than gimmicky. There are real attempts at innovation in the stagecraft, and whilst some elements work better than other, it feels genuinely exciting to watch. Similarly exciting, Mueller’s performance is something to behold. As my co-reviewer remarked on leaving the theatre, “shine on you crazy diamond!”. She has an effervescent energy throughout, and shows startling range and commitment. She actually manages to pull off several sequences in which she pretends to be a bird monster living on the moon, which is a far more glowing testament to her talent than I could ever articulate here in five hundred words.

The production, however, does have its significant shortcomings. I’m confused as to who the nervous narrator figure is, reappearing between the monologues and shifting anxiously around the stage, mumbling the names of the characters in German. The modernisation of the narrative is another sticking point. Whilst it works well in principle, in the scripting it often feels clunky and abrupt; Klara saying “I was all like oh my god”, and the replacement of the party at Spallanzani’s house with a party ‘at the Student Union’ feel especially forced. I also feel that the confusion between Coppela and Coppelius, such an integral element of the original story, is here taken too far. That they are both played by Mueller layers on another level of confusion and conflation so that if, like me, you go in with only a vague knowledge of the original, it’s distractingly confusing rather than effectively so.

Despite these its shortcomings, ‘Sandman’ harbours a certain macabre appeal. It is unsettling, uncomfortable, unique. Strap yourself in for an hour of oddness in its most undiluted form, and for heaven’s sake do not take your kids.

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