A man with perhaps the best name in the history of music, the life of Thelonious Sphere Monk seems well suited to dramatisation. Monk is widely acknowledged to be one of the twentieth century’s most original musical innovators and his unique compositional and piano performance style have had an enormous influence on contemporary music. Always enigmatic, he spent the last seven years of his life in almost complete silence, locked away from the world under the care of his close friend Baroness Pannonica Rothschild, better known as the ‘Jazz Baroness’.
In Misterioso, writer Stefano Benni and adaptor/director Filomena Campus have sought to shed some light on this unusual relationship and to explore the paradoxical silence that defined this great musician’s last years.
Central to this exploration is a quartet of musicians drawn from the top ranks of London’s jazz and free improv scene. With a changing roster of guests each night, the music is impeccably performed yet still retains the freshness and angular approach that characterised Monk’s compositions. Campus also lends her voice to the proceedings, though she lacks the nuances of phrasing of her more experienced musical colleagues and adding lyrics to Monk’s tunes is of questionable merit.
The music forms a kind of sonic tapestry around which the narrative, such as it is, is woven. Tamsin Shasha captures some of the charm and sparkle of the Jazz Baroness but her interaction with the on-stage musicians is at best stilted. Worse still is a very ill-conceived segment of audience participation where Shasha and Campus bring members of the audience on stage to dance. Bebop jazz of the kind pioneered by Monk was an inherently intellectualised form that consciously moved away from the more dance-oriented swing music that preceded it, and this dance segment fundamentally undermines the political undertones that writer Stefano Benni brings out in his poetic narrative.
If Misterioso has some fine moments, overall it feels like a missed opportunity. Billie Holiday briefly appears as a character, but inexplicably doesn’t sing a note, the projections by digital artists SDNA are somewhat underwhelming, the physical theatre elements feel tacked-on (if well performed) and the relationship between Monk and the Jazz Baroness is never explored in enough detail to form any sort of engaging narrative. The whole project is also pervaded by smoky jazz club clichés which, in a piece about a great innovator like Monk, feel misjudged.
- Steve Pretty