E.T.A Hoffman’s short story ‘The Sandman’ is a story full of intrigue, mystery and terror. The idea of a bird-like man who steals the eyes of children at night to feed his young will have children shivering in terror under their duvet covers. What was unexplored in Hoffman’s story, however, – and what is so painstakingly accounted for in Adie Mueller’s solo show Sandman – is the mental trauma this causes.
The main character, Nathaniel had an encounter with the mysterious Sandman as a child, and as an adult is now convinced that he has returned to ruin his life. Mueller jumps from character to character as she explores Nathaniel’s breakdown as seen through the eyes of everyone who cares for him, from his mother to his girlfriend. This show is promoted as a re-imagining of Hoffman’s story, but it is more suitable to imagine it as a sequel, since most of the play is set in Nathaniel’s adult life.
The story jumps often, starting and ending at the same chronological point. It has the effect of revealing a little more about Nathaniel as the play goes along, which maintains an air of suspense and mystery as well as not making the ending too predictable. It may take a minute or so to get to grips with this non-linear format at first, but it is an incredibly effective way to tell this story.
The characters are all made so distinct from one another by Mueller, who moves around the stage as if she is possessed. There are no scene breaks, so her focus is maintained for the entirety of the show and there is no escape from the dark story that she is telling. Mueller makes use of a variety of symbolic pieces of clothing and dolls which represent different characters at any one point (these, however, do not appear until the second half of the show). Even though some of the characters, such as Nathaniel’s drunken friend, come across as something of a caricature, Mueller is nonetheless convincing no matter whose shoes she is filling.
The set does not include anything beyond a stool and a clothes rack, although there are a number of props that are used to great effect by Mueller. It is somewhat disturbing when she starts to feel through her bag of children’s eyes – almost as disturbing as when a naked Barbie doll is ripped limb from limb. The props do much more than add a little bit of realism – they all represent something very key to Nathaniel’s emotional and mental demise. Even something as mundane as his laptop can be interpreted as how he is gradually being sucked away from the world around him.
It is difficult for a solo show to capture or add to Hoffman’s vision in as visceral a way as, for example, Paul Barry’s 1991 Oscar-nominated short film, but Sandman still succeeds in being a dark and in-depth piece of theatre. Mueller is in top form as she delivers a story that she has clearly put a lot of time into. This is a deeply impressive, scary and mesmerising adaptation of Hoffman’s ideas and as strong a solo performance as anyone could wish for.
ZOO at the Pleasance (Venue 124).
Until 28th August.
DISCLAIMER: Sandman by Adie Mueller is not to be confused with Shindig Theatre Company’s The Sandman, which is a different production.
Image: Adie Mueller