THE PERSISTENCE OF DREAMS: THE SANDMAN
By IRAA Theatre.
If we'd seen that show in a theatre, notes a fellow audience member, we wouldn't still be sitting here talking about it. This is an hour after Roberta Bosetti and Renato Cuocolo have left the building and the building in question is the home of a friend. We'd had a big meal and some wine and talked a bunch of crap while waiting the arrival of The Italians who, at the appointed hour, knocked on the door and took over the house. Nobody knew much about what to expect of the pair and since the piece will undoubtedly have a future life I won't go into too much detail about exactly what they pull off here. It becomes clear early on, however, that to invite strangers into your home means giving up a certain amount of power which we take for granted in the safety of our living spaces and, indeed, our theatre.
Like any dream, this one weaves in countless references that can't always be traced to their source. Sometimes these are in the form of dialogue – I spotted a line from David Lynch's Blue Velvet, and another guest picked up a section from Cormac McCarthy's The Road (embarrassing for me since I'd re-read that novel less than a week before). At one point Cuocolo scolds Bosetti for going off-script and reciting a bit of Emily Dickinson; at their most unsettling the quotations are situational rather verbal, as when a scene from Haneke's sadistic Funny Games begins to insert itself, or when mention of the Tate-LaBianca murders comes to seem horribly relevant.
The most prominent intertext is indicated by the show's title: E. T. A. Hoffmann's "Der Sandmann" which formed the basis for Freud's theories of The Uncanny. The Uncanny pops up pretty literally in the conception of this piece; in the German it's das unheimlich, or “the unhomely,” and Freud and later thinkers have examined how the sensation of the uncanny relies on the experience of strangeness within the familiar. Strangers in your home is about as straightforward a rendition of this as you could get, really.
One of the figures of Hoffmann's story which Freud effectively wrote out of his interpretation is Olimpia, the animated doll-woman who becomes the protagonist's obsessive love interest. The revelation that she is an automaton created by the monstrous figure he perceives as the Sandman precipitates his insanity, but Freud does all sorts of backflips to prove that Olimpia is just a distraction from the real Oedipal drama of disavowal and repression.
This is a shitty interpretation: that Freud should have found little interest in a love object who literally becomes an object is almost inexplicable, though his own writing often accomplished the same task when it came to female subjects (in fact psychoanalysis at its worst makes of the mind itself a clockwork mechanism).
Bosetti and Cuocolo don't explicitly invoke Olimpia either – the long reworking of "Der Sandmann" which is at the heart of The Persistence of Dreams focuses instead on the version told to Bosetti as a child, in which the villainous bogeyman comes at night to steal the eyes of unruly children to feed to his own. Vision and blindness and submission and the forbidden are all woven into the way this story is presented and (again without revealing too much) by this point the audience is as much grappling with the situation they've found themselves in as the narrative being conveyed.
And this is where I think Olimpia makes herself known: the audience of this work becomes the puppet, in the end, and is left questioning its own autonomy in the theatrical experience. At the mercy of the performers and removed from the safety of the theatre, the passivity of spectatorship becomes a problem rather than a comfort. When it's over there's no chance for that reassuring punctuation mark that is applause, and I think that's exactly why it was so necessary to talk about the show afterwards (at such length, too). It was still going on and we had to make sense of it, to explain away the dream or, rather, to banish the ghosts who had left the building but still seem to hover somewhere just out of sight. The moment when one of us realised that these intruders had in fact left behind real traces of their presence in other rooms only made that more real.