Adam Rapp has a remarkable way with words, a love of language that permeates every line of this raw, potent monologue. Not a sentence passes that doesnt contain some new honed image, some perfect detail, some phrase you want to cling to and revisit. Yet, for all his descriptive ability, when he wants to grab the audiences attention, Rapp is equally adept. Witness the very first line: “Fifteen years ago I killed my sister.”
Nocturne was first performed in 2000 at the American Rep Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In that original staging actors played the peripheral roles of the Mother, the Father and the other characters, but the play has since been reworked and stripped down, reborn as a one man show and this is how it is presented here, as part of the Almeidas summer festival.
The play concerns the fallout from a fatal car accident, a horrific event that throws a grenade into a suburban family, shredding them, tearing them apart. Following this tragedy, our resilient narrator as he frequently describes himself a former piano prodigy, leaves home, taking the “Amtrak as far east as it will go” to eke out a living in New York, working in a bookstore and living in a crummy apartment with a bathtub in the kitchen.
The writing contains much wit and warmth, which is fortunate, because if this were not the case it would be an unrelentingly grim slog. Madness, cancer, impotence: the play takes its audience on a dark journey and is, at times, almost too much to bear. But it ends on a note of hope, and, despite all the narrator goes through, it is optimistic in its outlook. In the world of the play, reconciliation is possible and people can, if not exactly heal themselves, then at least find workable ways to carry on, to reconnect with life. “Even the greatest sleeping sea becomes reawakened by the tide.”
For the most part Rapp creates the right balance between linguistic richness and narrative momentum, though occasionally there are traces of indulgence, a sense that the words have overtaken things, that he has been carried away by the writing, overdosed on alliteration, become lost in the language. These moments are rare though and the piece flows organically.
Peter McDonald plays the narrator with deceptive ease. He is onstage the entire time, standing there in his plaid shirt, clutching a thermos from which he occasionally drinks. His performance is so perfectly pitched that it doesnt really register as performance. Every gesture and pause fits together and, though its a long haul for a one man show one hour and forty minutes without a break time slides by and ones attention is held throughout. Now and then there is a break in the monologue and Griegs Nocturne plays as white streaks flash across a black disc suspended above the stage, providing necessary respite for both McDonald and the audience.
Monologues are difficult to pull off in a dramatically satisfying fashion, but despite the simplicity of the staging – one man and a chair Matt Wildes production is such that it fills the stage. And Rapps play, though emotionally draining, is a glorious thing. It left me giddy and exhilarated and eager to acquaint myself with more of his work.
Nocturne will be at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh from 31 July 10 August 2008