Who’s Upstairs? Francis Chouler

‘Modes of Escape and Survival’: Adam Rapp’s Nocturne at Alexander Bar Theatre

by Amy Louis Wilson

Here’s the thing about grief: it comes upon you like drowning. It is all-consuming and yet you are oddly detached from it, but one thing is certain: you cannot write from inside of it. You must let the white hot centre of it cool around you before you can shape it into something. You must be able to turn around and regard it from some distance.
This is what the narrator of Nocturne, known only as The Son, does in Adam Rapp’s critically acclaimed one-person play. In the course of a searing monologue, the play’s central character examines the painful moment that defined his life at the age of 17; the moment he killed his 9 year-old sister in an accident which rent his life in two.
Joan Didion, in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, a meditation on loss, speaks of the “ordinary nature” of grief, and indeed the opening line of Nocturne is startlingly bald: “15 years ago I killed my sister”. The play is rigorous in its dissection of grief, but it is also big and moving; rich with story and life.

It’s this combination of light and dark that drew actor Francis Chouler to the work. His career has spanned stage, film and television, appearing notably in Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky, as Fernando in Shakespeare’s Cardenio (Maynardville) and in Barney Simon’s Born in the RSA, but it’s his first time performing a one-person show. Speaking of his pull to the work, he says:
“This play cuts to the marrow of what a theatre experience is: a performer, a story and an audience. The power of this unassuming little play gives me the confidence to stage it without adornment, and the challenge to me as an actor is to play it that way, too.”

Chouler suggests that despite being set in a small, stifling town in Illinois and in the blank anonymity of New York City, the story could resonate with anyone who has left a childhood home to carve out a space for themselves. More than this, it is the specificity of the narrator’s description of his physical world; its texture and temperature that makes this a story South African audiences can connect with. As Chouler argues, “we are a nation fractured by grief and grievances, largely unprocessed and arguably ‘unprocessable’. This play takes grief out of its hiding place.”

The play is directed by Emily Child, who describes it as “funny and dark and strange and human…It is story-telling in its truest, most affecting form”.
South African theatregoers will be familiar with Child’s work as an actress. She has demonstrated her immense talent and versatility in productions such as King Lear; Louis Viljoen’s The Pervert Laura; The Eulogists and The Hucksters, as well as in Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca.
Nocturne is Child’s directorial debut. On taking on this new role, Child remarks:
“It feels like the right time for me to take this leap. I am comfortable taking risks because I have been lucky enough to learn from and work with practitioners who don’t allow themselves to be constrained by boundaries. Directing is a very tough and exciting challenge for me… I feel that any process is only a success if the relationship between collaborators is honest, peaceful, respectful, and disciplined but never takes itself too seriously.”
Both Chouler and Child echo the sentiment that a certain precision is necessary when approaching a text that is often closer to poetry than to prose. How does one honour the texture and beauty of it, but make it direct and unafraid?
“I have tried to lean on the text,” says Child, “It is so specifically written that I am determined not to overcomplicate it. We investigate the words thoroughly in order to make sure that each moment is communicated with the amount of focus and clarity that it requires. My approach is simple in that my goal is to find a way for us to speak Adam Rapp’s words without sentiment but with the definition and immediacy that they deserve.”

Chouler’s process has involved weeks of writing the script out by hand. He does this to “spend time inside the complex imagery and also to give me a sense of the character as an author. He is a writer and he talks like one, and that is not something we are trying to naturalise or minimise… There is nothing extraneous in the play, so one has to find where each utterance fits…There is a lot of unpacking and linking imagery and argument that goes on. That, and finding the lightness, the humour and the absurdity.”
What becomes clear as Nocturne unfolds is that it is also a play about reading and writing; and the potential of both of these to help us make sense of the often confusing and violent world around us. Reading and writing, to the narrator, are “modes of escape and survival”. We feel the breath of Tennessee Williams brush across the stage with its echoes of The Glass Menagerie; and the shadows of the authors the narrator reads flit past us: Nabokov, Murakami, Baldwin, Salinger… Nocturne is a work of literary weight which manages to tread lightly between the devastating and the darkly funny; affirming, finally, the reason we tell stories in the first place.

Nocturne runs from 10 to 21 September at the Alexander Bar Theatre.
Ticket link: alexanderbar.co.za/show/Nocturne/
Written by: Adam Rapp
Performed by: Francis Chouler
Directed by: Emily Child
Designed by: Niall Griffin
Costumes by: Francois Burger