One's liking for Novecento will probably be in direct proportion to one's fondness for mythic buddies and jazz. In other words, men will like it better than women. Yet every-one should have an agreeable time at Alessandro Baricco's play about "the greatest pianist who ever lived on the ocean". It's a bit sentimental and attenuated, but the set is wonderfully atmospheric, and the performance, by Tom McCamus, as seductive as a box of liqueur chocolates wrapped in cashmere.
François Girard's production, for Théâtre de Quat 'Sous of Montreal, begins with smoke. Through the clouds that cover the dark stage, we can dimly see a figure in overcoat and fedora and, as the lights slowly come up, the engine room of an ocean liner. François Séguin's monumental set of a ship's innards is stark yet poetic, like old industrial photography – a quality accentuated by Marc Parent's lighting. Low-level spots pick out the narrator, and, as his tale unfolds, they fan across his wondering face.
The year is 1932. Tim's tall story begins six years earlier, when, at 17, he became the trumpet player of the jazz band on the Virginian. With the Titanic a recent memory, the ship's owners want plenty of cheerful music. The band's star is Danny Novecento, named for the new century, at whose beginning he is found abandoned. The black pianist adopts him, and, fearing he will be taken away, keeps him on board. When Danny is eight, and has crossed the Atlantic over 50 times, his adoptive father dies. That night he sits down at the piano and plays it in a way to make angels and first-class passengers weep.
On Tim's first crossing, he and Danny become best friends. Sitting beside Danny on the piano bench, Tim is encouraged to ride out a raging storm rather than hide from it, and his terror and bemusement turn to exhilaration as the two career around the ballroom floor, dancing "on the liquid parquet of the night". The sea is a place where they can be close in a way that is not possible on land, where, with their music, they can "say all those things to each other you can never really say with words."
McCamus tells his story in a voice that is believably 1930s American, his impersonations of the black musicians and of the cool, ethereal Novecento pointed without exaggeration. Michael Golding's translation is excellent – fluid and colloquial.
The centrepiece of Tim's tale is an epic cutting contest between his friend and Jelly Roll Morton, a story McCamus delivers with great timing and poise. But the title character is too fanciful, the story too slight to bear their freight of symbol and meaning. Novecento is pretty good hokum, but ultimately, that's all it is.
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