The Word for Snow, Purcell Room, London

 

Programmes were not distributed until after the show, but you were handed a single sheet of white paper, blank except for one typed word – mine, somewhat dispiritingly, was "sock" – as you made your way into the Purcell Room for this European premiere of a short play by Don DeLillo.

A play by Don DeLillo? It sounds counter-intuitive - like hearing of a West End romp by Martin Amis. That the renowned author of such post-modern, panoptic novels as White Noise and Underworld also writes work for the stage is one of the better kept secrets in Theatreland, at least in this country.

But now the word is out - and I use that expression advisedly. The piece is a melancholy poetic meditation on language and climate change, envisioning an apocalyptic world in which all we will be left with are words as the things they once stood for are wiped out.

“Are you saying children will build a snowman with the word for snow?” asks the wide eyed American Pilgrim who has crossed continents to consult the Scholar, once a renowned expert on eschatology now a recluse on the top of an unnamed mountain in west-central Asia.

Propelled by Eastern-sounding percussion, Jack McNamara’s powerful multi-media production complements the often haunting text with projections and film-footage of the ecological disasters it surveys and with images that focus the irreplaceable beauty and quiddity of the threatened species it mentions.

But there’s a dreamy, aestheticising quality to these embellishments that emphasise rather than counter one key problem with this piece. Jasper Britton plays the Scholar with quietly compelling, slightly geeky intensity in a way that suggests a weary infinite sorrow under the remoteness.

But how seriously are we expected to take a figure who, though he knows English, insists on communicating in Old Church Slavonic through his Interpreter? Then there’s the maddening loftiness to his gnomic utterances, such as “All names, one name”, “the logic of North is shattered”, and “Time is a lie”.

McNamara brings on a barefoot chorus of citizens to amplify the shift into a communal speaking in tongues that is supposed to register a breakthrough at the end. But a sense of absurdity lingers – “He is beyond Old Slavonic now. He is outside history” the Interpreter solemnly reports – and the climax feels morally unearned. DeLillo, you reckon, would be unwise to give up the day-job. Ends tonight

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