A magnificent script, sensitively interpreted, makes this production of Nocturne a noteworthy experience for theatre-lovers. It is a directorial début for Emily Child, who has to meet the challenge of using a 70-minute, relatively static monologue, to engage and hold audience attention –which feat she has achieved with ingenuity and a well-cast performer in the person of Francis Chouler. An arresting set and imaginative lighting, courtesy of Niall Griffin, complement the calibre of direction and acting; but it is Adam Rapp’s text that makes Nocturne memorable.
The opening line (“Fifteen years ago I killed my sister”) soon becomes a semantic game, a verbal jigsaw puzzle wherein the seven words are rearranged in every possible sequence, suggesting the speaker’s obsession with language as a tool to express the inexpressible and possibly to deal with its brutality.
Hands in pockets, Chouler fixes his listeners with a defiant stare, his American accent reproducing the softer idiom of the northern States (this protagonist’s native territory) as opposed to the drawl of the Deep South. This shows a commendable attention to detail on the part of the director, and to the actor’s credit he maintains this diction throughout, only flagging briefly when he speaks too fast at one point.
It is the very lack of dramatic visuals that enables one to focus without distraction on the quality of the script: the latter’s blend of bone-dry humour, startling imagery, intelligent satire, and at times sublime poetry, keeps the audience in thrall as they accompany the narrator on his 17-year long journey in the aftermath of life-changing tragedy. The only concession to evoking his lethal accident is a seat between two angled mirrors, where he sits momentarily to re-enact the event while describing the experience in graphic detail.
References to his sister’s corpse –her severed head, lace-trimmed socks and floral dress– have a terseness that is somehow more poignant than expressions of flowery sentiment, just as his ironic reduction of his parents’ bourgeois home to “a little blonde house” in which formica predominates, is more suggestive than an elaborate description. This selectivity of detail is equally apparent in his portrayal of his parents, conveying much with few words.
A leitmotif of the play is music, a pervasive element in the emotionally inhibited narrator’s life: physically present in the shape of an inherited Steinway piano of ambiguous worth, and, more subtly, in the form of a nocturne which he learned to play in his youth and which is heard at the end, in all its graceful tenderness, like a redemption and benediction after dealing with death, estrangement, guilt and dementia.
A powerful and moving piece of theatre recommended for those who seek more than mere entertainment on the stage.
Director: Emily Child
Cast: Francis Chouler
Design: Niall Griffin
Venue: Alexander Upstairs, until September 21