This play begins seemingly by agreement with the audience. A woman sits almost unnoticed under a huge slide show of photos of ordinary folk holding up hand written signs saying ‘see me’. We wait a long time in performance terms for her to come downstage and begin to talk. By that time the audience has rearranged the chairs and made more eye contact than is usual at shows, bonding over the odd and apparently informal beginnings of this monumentally original work.
Nicola Gunn starts off inhabiting a warm, fragile and utterly hilarious character, Sophie, who goes in to deconstruct the performance before it’s even begun, She gives away Nicola’s methods (referring to a favourite book – ‘she borrowed some ideas; like the plot’) and we are seduced by her, willing to go along on an unknowable ride within the first five minutes. There are many exquisite moments of physical theatricality, for example, after she has been writing on a chalk board she wipes it, leaving wet marks forming a sad visage. The performance completely disarms us and makes us laugh while taking us deeper into the experience of being disconnected from oneself.
You are made aware of the agreements of theatre; outside of comedy a performer would never deprive an audience member of his chair and then go on to shame him in front of the rest of us. We don’t need to be told that this is what happened to our girl as a child. In lesser hands obvious rule breaking can lend a ‘studentish’ cast to a show but not here. Her relationship with us and the objects around her reveal her pain as much as what she says and by the time Sophie’s other personas turn up we understand how urgently she needs them.
For most of us ‘ourselves’ are given. We know, more or less, who we are and we wake up every morning taking for granted we will remain so (unfortunate as that may at times seem). But to not have that, to not be able to depend on yourself being around, is something only the seriously mentally ill know; the immensely impressive thing about this show it that it gives you more than ‘an insight’ – you do get to somehow feel it. Long ‘gaps’ between business on stage allow for an accumulation of what we’ve experienced, effecting an appreciation of how everything in the space and time supports the story, plus you get to take your personal temperature, so to speak. The audience becomes involved, not by being emotionally manipulated, but rather in a most authentic way, in the private perception of the fragmented life of one who is abandoned. You are eagerly looking forward to what will happen next with absolutely no idea of what that might be. We’re brought to care most skillfully by a stunning level of performance, a rare thrill in theatre.
‘Sans’ of course, means ‘without’ so the hotel the characters retreat to, apparently a place of refuge, doesn’t exist. The show is inspired in part by the sad story of Cornelia Rau who was incarcerated for 18 months for being lost, literally and to herself.
‘Clever’ gives the impression of a mannered, consciously, impressive sort of piece and ‘intelligent’ sounds worthy and well-researched – this play is so much more: different, really funny, authentic and astute, and honestly, honestly, marvelous.
Theatre Works presents
At The Sans Hotel
by Nicola Gunn
Venue: Theatre Works | 14 Acland Street, St Kilda
Dates: 16 - 27 Mar 2010
Time: 8.00pm Tues to Sun | 2.00pm Sat 27th Mar
Tickets: $28 Full / $25 conc / $15 Preview, Tuesday, Matinees & Gps 10+ (plus booking fee)
Bookings: www.theatreworks.org.au | 9534 3388