When you create a piece of theatre, there is always research and performance material that’s really interesting, but for one reason or another doesn’t make it into the show. I call these ‘scraps’. Sometimes ‘scraps’ become the starting point for a new project.
This is one of my favourite ‘scraps’ from Sandman:
E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story The Sandman is all about the eyes, the fear of losing sight (literally and metaphorically) and whether what we see is real or what we believe to see. In the story Nathaniel recounts an episode from his childhood when Coppelius (the Sandman) tried to take his eyes but, when Nathaniel’s father intervened, he unscrewed his hands and feet instead and put them back on the wrong way round. It is unclear whether this actually happened or whether it was some kind of hallucination on Nathaniel’s part.
In the very early stages of workshopping ideas for the show I listened to Radio4’s documentary Hallucination: Through the Doors of Perceptions by chance. Hallucinations are mostly associated with people with mental illness; however, it is little known that many mentally healthy people experience hallucinations, either as visions or voices. Now this made me startle: visions occur in people WHO ARE IN THE PROCESS OF LOSING THEIR SIGHT, i.e. are going blind, the so-called Charles Bonnet Syndrom. The visual hallucinations often consist of objects, faces, people standing or sitting in a room and of bodies that are incomplete, i.e. the bottom half is missing.
I’m not quite sure why I got so excited about this! It seemed to offer an explanation of Nathaniel’s ‘hallucination’. Maybe he is so scared of the Sandman taking his eyes, because he has this premonition that he is going to lose his sight (literally and metaphorically). But within the world of the story the threat of the Sandman turns out to be real, not just a fantasy. So I guess that my discovery of Charles Bonnet Syndrome not only resonated with the themes of the story but unsettled assumptions fundamental to our sense of self: that we are rational beings, that we can see what’s real, that we can securely know and explain ‘reality’ and that somehow we are in control of ourselves and the world. But often we aren’t. … And that’s uncanny, isn’t it?