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1900 The Pianist on the
1900 is an
interesting evenings theatre. I hesitate to call it a play because even its creator
does not. Novecento, to give it its original title, was written in 1994 by Italian
novelist and essayist Alessandro Baricco as a story/monologue for the actor Eugenio
Allegri to perform. With the aid of director Gabrieile Vacis, it made its stage debut at
the Asti Festival that same year. It is a sort of modern fable, a tale told by a narrator
who is also part of the story about an enigmatic man who is born at sea and spends his
entire life on a passenger liner. Raised initially by engineers in the bowels of the ship,
the boy demonstrates a singular talent for music at age eight, and he becomes an on-board
entertainer. His piano playing is quite unlike anything ever heard before, a form of free
expression which goes beyond even the boundaries of jazz. He seems at one with the ocean
and at peace with himself in a way which touches the lives of those who come into contact
with him or merely hear tales whispered of him on dry land. His name is given to him by
the engineer who finds him as a baby, marking the year it happens.
Though in English 1900 is just a number, in Italian,
novecento can also mean twentieth century (as it did in Bernardo
Bertoluccis 1976 epic movie). This mans story is clearly emblematic.
Encompassing the images of industrialisation and social inequality which defined the
modernist era, spanning the years including the two world wars and ending shortly after
the latter, there seems little doubt that this life story tells more than the narrator is
even conscious of. It is a text about boundaries: boundaries of understanding, boundaries
of self-expression, boundaries of culture, economics, and nationality which define human
beings within society (particularly that of the early twentieth century).
Music is the conduit through which this theme is most obviously
explored, but the entire work is infused with a sense of parameters and limitations.
Though 1900 seems able to transcend the forms and frameworks which constrain his fellows
(exemplified by his musical genius), ironically it is his own inability to engage with a
changing and ever-larger world which leaves him sitting on a carton of dynamite as the
ship is being scuttled after the second world war. Though he doesnt understand it
himself, the narrator has become part of a postmodern world now shared by the audience
which 1900 cannot.
The text is also concerned with shifting boundaries on a formal level.
It blurs the distinction between theatrical monologue and prose storytelling. As Baricco
remarks: "I dont think there is a name for such a text. Anyway, it doesnt
matter much." 1900 presents itself as a stage show, performed by a single
actor and backed by an original score performed live by a jazz quintet. It was therefore
written with an actors interpretation of character in mind, a one-man show which
relies heavily on the performers ability to maintain a strong narrative centre while
also moving from character to character. The sense of dislocation is increased by the fact
that the narration never even gets to the centre of its eponymous hero. 1900s story
is told in terms of his contact with others rather than his own point of view, and even
then it is told by our narrator, a jazz trumpet player who joins the liner in the late
1920s. Though we occasionally hear 1900s voice, he remains in the background until
the final speech. He is a sort of Lord Jim figure; explained to us by a narrator whose
perceptions are themselves flawed.
There is clearly much to ponder here, but the question of its
entertainment value remains. The current Irish production, the first in the English
language, is performed by Donal OKelly, an actor and writer himself and no stranger
to monologues. This show demands much more of him that a vocal presence and a series of
poses though. 1900 is a very physical work, requiring the actor to mimic the
sensations of being tossed in angry seas and affect the demeanour of a variety of
supporting characters from a swaggering night club host and the inventor of
jazz Jelly Roll Morton to a succession of coal-faced crewmen from belowdecks who
oversee the boys growth to manhood. OKelly demonstrates excellent physical
control and a good level of gestural expression in addition to managing a range of
accents. There is a fairly high level of interaction with the on-stage musicians in terms
of the dramatic and thematic rhythms of the piece. On the whole he does a masterful job,
though one wonders how Allegris version would differ.
The score for this production has been composed by pianist Justin
Carroll. It asserts a presence throughout on both practical and symbolic levels (jazz, as
a modernist medium, represents transition and fluidity of form: it is also the music
played on board the ship). In a sense though there is not much Carroll can do in terms of
representing the transcendent music played by the title character, which makes one or two
scenes less powerful than they promise to be. The other technical elements of the
production have also been carefully planned, from the lighting by Dermot ODonnell to
the stylish set designed by Emma Cullen. Director Leticia Agudo has a strong sense of the
visual dimensions of the action and allows OKelly to make full use of the props and
stage space as he tells his story. It is little wonder that the basic story and the rich
imagery contained within it inspired a film adaptation by Guiseppe Tornatore in 1998.
There is much to be admired and enjoyed in 1900: The Pianist on the
Ocean, a work of contemporary European theatre which may not on the face of it seem
like a candidate for popular success. It has been on tour in Ireland since November 2000
though, and its current, belated appearance at Andrews Lane is an extension of the
original itinerary. Though not as consistently involving as perhaps it ought to be and not
particularly emotionally rewarding, it is an intriguing mixture of performance arts and
literary styles which lends itself to closer inspection.
Dublin, April 4, 2001
- Harvey O'Brien