Night terrors

This article is from 2008


A traumatic childhood accident inspired Adam Rapp’s latest play, Nocturne. Mark Fisher chats to the US writer about death, drama and decapitation

It was the play famed for the longest full-frontal onstage pee in theatre history. Audiences watched in amazement as a naked and very hairy man rose from his comatose state and began to relieve himself. He peed and he peed. It was all anyone could talk about and I later found out the actor had had to force himself to drink pints of water before each show to guarantee he could, er, perform.

The play was Finer Noble Gases, the grungiest of comedies, about a bunch of wasted rock musicians whose creative energy had been diverted by a mind-numbing level of drug intake. Imagine The Young Ones if they’d really been the drop-outs Rik imagined themselves to be. Performed in the rough-and-ready Bongo Club, it was a perfect portrait of four New York flatmates tucking in to bowls of coloured pills, throwing up behind the sofa and kicking in the television in between vague attempts at holding a conversation. In keeping with the slacker spirit, it finished with the actors getting it together to launch a full-on prog-rock workout. Such was the organic, oddball texture of the piece, it was easy to imagine playwright Adam Rapp had not so much crafted it as stumbled upon it in a drug-addled haze. You imagined him as some drop-out who was in the theatre by accident rather than design.

The truth is altogether different. The 40-year-old might have been a discovery for Edinburgh, but on home turf he’s a respected and prolific writer and director having produced seven novels for teenagers, one for grown-ups and a couple of graphic novels. As well as a dozen plays, he has written and directed two films, including Blackbird which played at last year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. He still finds time to play with the band that formed as a result of Finer Noble Gases. If this is what the rock’n’roll lifestyle does, then bring it on.

And although Rapp loves theatre to capture the imaginations of a young crowd, Finer Noble Gases is not the only string to his bow. To see a considerably more delicate side to him, check out Nocturne, a one-man show about grief, being produced by London’s Almeida Theatre. Although written at around the same time as the other play, it’s more likely to drive you to tears than gasps of astonished laughter. ‘Some of my things are a little more refined, I guess,’ he says. ‘I wrote Finer Noble Gases after Nocturne and wanted to be known as a different kind of writer. Every theatre critic thought I was schizophrenic. Nocturne is a memory play about a guy who accidentally kills his little sister in a head-on collision. It reads like a novella and is a very literary piece, so it’s very different in style. It was the piece in the United States that allowed other theatres to take the risk on all the other crazy plays.’

On its debut at the American Repertory Theatre, it received two playwriting awards followed by an acclaimed off-Broadway run in 2001. What audiences didn’t know was it had been written as a way for Rapp to deal with a true-life tragedy. ‘The next-door neighbour and best friend of my little sister, was killed in front of her house by her uncle,’ he says. ‘She was chasing a ball and was decapitated. It was so tragic that her uncle accidentally hit her with his truck. My sister witnessed it. It was devastating for her family. My mother was dying of cancer at the same time, so I was living with the whole grief thing. I was haunted by this accidental death. The family were like walking ghosts for the next year. I didn’t know how you could ever get over something like that. I started writing this thing and it turned out to be Nocturne.’

The result, like the accident, is what one critic called, ‘excruciating to experience and impossible to ignore’. ‘It’s a dark piece that raises lots of questions about memory, guilt, complicity, family love and mercy,’ says Rapp. ‘I don’t think it’s totally different to my other plays, but something about the way it was written makes it much more digestible.’

Nocturne, Traverse Theatre, Cambridge Street, 0131 228 1404, 1—10 Aug (not 4), various time, £14—£16 (£5—£11). Preview 31 Jul, 6.30pm, £10 (£5).

Nocturne (Previews)

  • 4 stars

A young man reeling from the tragic death of his younger sister flees to New York City and reinvents himself as a writer. New work from the writer of 2006's multi-award winning 'Finer Noble Gases'