Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Nocturne at the Almeida

On Friday evening I ran through a mist of fresh summer rain to the Almeida, currently in the midst of an eclectic summer festival, to see Adam Rapp’s Nocturne, an emotionally charged and beautifully written monologue about how one awful incident can devastate a family. The play begins with a blunt, enticing statement: “fifteen years ago I killed my sister” and goes on to describe a horrific accident and its repercussions. Following his sister’s death, as his parents crumble, both physically and mentally, the narrator retreats into himself, fleeing to New York to eke out a living in a book store, to lead a quiet non-life lost in words.

Adam Rapp’s play trusts language, it too puts its faith in the power of words and barely a sentence passes that doesn’t contain diverting image or a striking descriptive phrase. It’s at times a bit self-conscious in this respect, but for the most part it maintains a balance between linguistic richness and narrative momentum.

When Nocturne was first staged in the US, it featured not just the narrator but a cast of supporting characters, his mother and father and so forth, and it sounds as if it was more theatrical in that incarnation, more visually interesting than what we get in this stripped down restaging: essentially just one man and a chair (and a small thermos flask from which he occasionally drinks). There are brief breaks in the flow of words, where rough sketched images – road markings and birds in flight – flit across a black disc that hangs at the back of the stage, but these appear to have been inserted to give both performer and audience respite: the play remains just one man talking.

There were moments where I wondered if this needed to be in a theatre at all, if it wouldn’t play just as well on radio, and I occasionally shut my eyes and let it all wash over me. However to do this too often was to do the actor, Peter MacDonald, a disservice as he seemed totally at home with the material. His gestures, his pauses and expressions all felt organic. Though it ran for over an hour and a half without a break I was never bored, never restless, I sat rapt, attentive throughout. On the way home I dipped into the playtext as my bus curved through the streets, the brake lights ahead glowing red through the rain-streaked windows, and got so caught up in it that I almost missed my stop. It’s Edinburgh-bound, this production, heading for the Traverse and is well worth seeing.

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