Whose happy ending?

Josephine Wilson

Gibson Nolte, Nocturne

Gibson Nolte, Nocturne

Gibson Nolte, Nocturne

It is easy to see why Steamwork’s Sally Richardson was keen to obtain the rights to Adam Rapp’s award-winning monologue Nocturne. In the words of the New York Times: “[Rapp is] a writer on the cusp.” Nocturne is a self-consciously literary script that strives for the original metaphor and the striking simile. It is also a well crafted and eloquent tale of tragedy, exile and overcoming.

In this recent production at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, American-born Gibson Nolte plays the son who has inadvertently brought tragedy upon his family. Nolte immerses himself fully in the demands of the 2 hour monologue and he is well supported by Andrew Lake’s simple yet effective design. Under Sally Richardson’s direction, Nolte offers the audience an intense and at times moving performance that strives to mesh psychological realism with the extended poetics of the text.

The opening line of Nocturne is the perfect narrative grief hook: “15 years ago I killed my sister.” The son writes the line across the back of the stage before reading the sentence out loud and then dissecting its various syntactic possibilities, none of which, we are to understand, can change the nature of the catastrophe that has occurred. The opening thus places writing and storytelling centrestage, only to signal its inadequacy and lack in relation to “the real.”

The opening line also establishes a relationship with the audience that is predicated on revelation and the uncovering of truth. Is this really murder? How was the girl killed? Why? We learn that the son was 17 at the time of his sister’s death, that it was an accident, that the brakes failed and that it ruined the lives of his mother and father. We also learn that at the time of re-telling, the son is a writer with a well-reviewed novel under his belt.

Nolte is rarely silent throughout the 2 hour show. I find myself thinking about much more than culpability and narrative drive. What kind of character speaks like this? What story does theatre tell itself to rationalise its peculiar behaviour? Why is the son telling us all this? Is this monologue a defence? A confession? Catharsis? A cover-up?

Nolte’s performance strives for an off-the-cuff quality, as if the character were composing his speech as he went along. In trying to naturalise the ‘writerly’ origins of this script (signalled then disavowed in the opening), Nocturne glosses over the fraught relationship between guilt and storytelling, trauma and repetition, and the ways in which grief is cauterised by the act of telling unreliable but necessary tales of overcoming.

Nocturne is ultimately not about trauma, repetition and storytelling: it is about how a boy overcomes tragedy to become a man and an artist. In this theatrical take on the Künstlerroman (the novel of the artist’s education), the death of his sister ultimately releases the writer-to-be from twin instruments of oppression: the study of piano and family obligations. Estranged from his family, he ekes out a meagre life working in a bookshop on New York’s Lower East Side. Forced to make do, he constructs his table and chairs from well-thumbed orange Penguin paperbacks that he reads voraciously. Literature literally furnishes him with a life. Nabokov, Updike, Hemingway…the list is erudite, if familiar. Nocturne is powerful and affecting theatre, but there remains something depressingly predictable in this modernist tale of masculine creativity.

In the final scenes, the son narrates his reluctant journey at the behest of his dying father back to the grim, cold Mid-West of his past. I realise that I do not like this son and that I do not completely believe the well-crafted story he tells himself and us. There is no rule that says I have to empathise with a character, but in this production I sense that it is important, and that there is little space for non-believers in the audience.

With the death of the father and the lack of narrative interest in the mother (she is in an asylum), the son is safe to claim what Nocturne sets up as psychological closure, but looks a lot like narrative expediency.

If this is realism, then how does it feel to have your identity as a writer dependent on the sacrificial death of an innocent? Here is a character who transforms trauma into speech, but at what cost? Must the family die so the writer may live?

“You see in 1967, while I was trying to take my first vacation, my mother killed herself.” This is the first line of Spalding Gray’s Monster in a Box. For Gray, who played on the edges of autobiography and performance, personal tragedy and loss were never easy to narrate and his story certainly did not obey the dictates of a happy ending.

But after all, that was life. This is realism.

Steamworks Arts Productions in association with B Sharp, Nocturne, writer Adam Rapp, director Sally Richardson, performer Gibson Nolte, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, June 9-27

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. 12

© Josephine Wilson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2004