Edinburgh Fringe 2011
The piece opens with Sophie apologising for the non appearance of Nicola Gunn and playing with the audience to their amusement and discomfort. An exploration of identity, At Sans Hotel, paints a picture of the boundaries between self and reality and of the gradual breakdown of identity. In spite of a stunning performance, At Sans Hotel leaves the audience behind too often.
A strange character called Sophie greets us and apologises for the non appearance of the performer we expected to see, Nicola Gunn. In the absence of Nicola Sophie hosts in an agitated, over eager to please way creating an atmosphere reminiscent of Abigail’s Party. She hands out imaginary questionnaires and rushes round the audience discomforting us with one short filler in after another. There’s a huge projection of an Indian elephant behind her – ‘ the elephant in the room’ she tells us. Nicola is the real elephant in the room, the performer who hasn’t shown up. She introduces Nicola’s character and her methods, deconstructing how Nicola might stage a performance, referring to a favourite book – ‘she borrowed some ideas like the plot’. She explores our discomfort – ‘ you’re probably wondering why you’re here and what’s going on’. Indeed.
Even as she seduces us with the character of Sophie who she creates as Nicola’s friend and alter ego and we begin to settle into the unexpected, she changes the atmosphere again. On a large blackboard she draws a series of seemingly unconnected words and diagrams that gradually illustrate the dramatic arc of theatre that she tells us is characteristic of Nicola’s style, and then rubs it it out to form the elements of a sad face. Scene by scene she reveals the agreements of theatre and demolishes them. As audience, we join in increasingly feeling the disconnection to self that the character feels.
Generally, our reality and sanity is constructed on a secure sense of self, as increasingly disconnected persona’s enter the performance, we are immersed into a growing feeling of insanity. She tells the (true) story of Cornelia Rau, a German tourist suffering from schizophrenia who wandered across the Australian desert and tried into a hotel without any luggage. She was then incarcerated in a prison for the next two years, often in solitary confinement. There are scenes where Nicola thrashes around under a table in psychological agony. She divests herself of her day clothes and in a black slip and a funeral hat delivers a disturbingly manic monologue.
Increasingly fragmented as identity splinters, we become involved inside the mind of someone who no longer has a grip on reality. It’s a stunning performance, yet somehow the lack of narrative and the fractured nature of the show leave us confused and standing slightly outside of it. The disjointed nature of the piece means that it doesn’t take the audience on the journey as well as it might.