The strongest image that remains after seeing “Novecento” is the thrilling storm at sea, the ship’s deck seesawing vertiginously in the tumultuous waves and the grand piano careering about the dance floor. Yet there’s no piano, and absolutely nothing on the bare set moves except the slithering arms and legs of Mark Bonnar, the sole actor. Everything literal has been banished from the sound, lighting and set design of Roisin McBrinn’s superbly controlled production, which is a triumph of dramatic suggestion. If only the script itself were as powerful.
Alessandro Baricco’s monologue, translated by Ann Goldstein, is told by Tim, a trumpeter aboard the Virginian, an American ocean liner in the 1920s. Physically compact and alert, his suit disheveled, his hair plastered to a face anxious and sweaty, Bonnar transmits a haunted look as befits a man telling what amounts to a ghost story.
Tim is best friend to Novecento, a strange but gifted musical loner who was born on the ship, which in 32 years he has never left. But such is the mystically inspired nature of his piano playing that he becomes a phenomenon.
The key episode in the story is the occasion when an arrogant Jelly Roll Morton swaggers aboard to challenge Novecento to a musical duel. The setup hums with anticipation; the scene has a structure using tension and resolution, and builds to a surprise. In other words, it has true dramatic action. But the effectiveness of that central section unfortunately illuminates the wider problem.
Too much of the story is illustration rather than developing drama. And there’s a false note when the reason for Novecento’s climactic failure of nerve is withheld from the audience solely so that it can be revealed as a kind of philosophical punchline at the (overly drawn-out) conclusion.
Bonnar reels us in by acting with, not at, his audiences. He eyeballs and connects with them with the insinuating ease of a born storyteller. Yet, as with most stage solos, the dramatic imperative that compels the reciting of the tale remains unsatisfyingly vague.
This suggests that the piece should sink. That it actually sails for long stretches is due to McBrinn’s direction.
All her design elements are so ideally meshed it’s well-nigh impossible to separate them. Paul Wills’ set has not one obvious nautical reference. Instead, his single unchanging wall of chains and sets of copper piping beautifully evoke atmospheres from the engine room up through the music stands of the dance-hall up onto the deck.
The contrasting spaces are further conjured by Paul Keoghan’s lighting, which uses wholly unexpected colors to present the contrasting emotional temperatures. Instead of using lightning effects for the storm, he turns the space red; he suggests a filled dance-hall by coolly shifting into turquoise and purple.
Fergus O’Hare’s captivating sound design and Olly Fox’s music are similarly rigorously non-representational. Since Novecento is a pianist whose music no one has ever heard before, they wisely use everything but a piano to present him. The nearest they get to jazz is a distant saxophone moan against a stratospherically high, extended string note.
This season of work at the Trafalgar is designed to show off the talents of young directors who trained as assistant directors at the Donmar Warehouse. It’s not McBrinn’s fault that Novecento only grips intermittently. But the material notwithstanding, she simply could not have created a stronger calling-card for her future career.