At the Sans Hotel, playing at Theatre Works in St. Kilda, is one of the finest pieces of theatre put on in Melbourne for years. Nicola Gunn has created a remarkable and indescribable character study – of which character you’re never entirely sure – pulling together threads of story, seen and unseen, into a blistering, funny and moving piece of performance art.
It is hard to describe what happens in At the Sans Hotel. Not to worry though – a telltale sign that something is good is when it is indescribable. The character that Nicola Gunn has created is an unstable figure in the Theatre Works space, a space purposefully made cavernous, part bureaucratic small town meeting, part decrepit, and crumbling hotel ballroom. Gunn starts off as Sophie, a French community centre worker, baffling the audience who sit scraping in their old school chairs, peeking between shoulders, each one trying to connect to what is happing – a meandering yet utterly absorbing journey along the mind of this woman, whoever she may be. Gunn was partly inspired by the story of Cornelia Rau, a schizophrenic woman who was detained as an illegal immigrant for eighteen months, unable to remember her name or even her true nationality, speaking German or English with a bad accent, using a different name, unable to find a reason for her deception.
The space is a character in itself, both immune to her identity and searching for it with her, refusing it with her. The piece works in the anticipation that someone else will join Sophie: Cornelia Rau? Anna Schmidt? Nicola Gunn? The character morphs at beautifully timed moments, created by a web of lies, and the desire to distance herself from them, to not have told them in the first place, to curb the compulsion that brings her into a slowly closing circle of herself. But, as with all tragic pieces that are somehow funny, her hell is inescapable, so what is she going to do with it? Stuffing her face with cake, talking down the phone to a dead line, acknowledging stolen plot lines while trying to explain the show to the viewer, the absurdity is something to be laughed at by everyone but the victim – who also happens to be the creator – of the situation.
The visual aesthetic arches slowly out of the piece as it progresses. What starts out as a visually basic piece slowly transforms into an intricate and sublime building of imagery, with the help of a series of unique, bold and thoughtful lighting states. Pieces on the ever growing stage area are each put there for a reason, a reason that is not drummed into you when it finally makes itself clear. Running around this massive stage with a portable stereo in hand, her safety net, Gunn is clearly in charge of her environment, whilst simultaneously being swallowed by it. And always there is the glimpse of a whole other world through a twin set of doorways. It is obvious that Gunn’s collaboration with Gwendolyna Holmberg-Gilchrist and Rebecca Etchell has paid massive dividends.
I’ll shut up now. Go see this thing, as soon as you can.
At the Sans Hotel, playing at Theatre Works
Date: 16 Mar 2010 – 27 Mar 2010
14 Acland St, St Kilda
Bookings: 03 9534 3388
Office: 03 9534 4879