Misterioso – A Journey Into the Silence of Thelonious Monk

Jazz is a study of madness, perhaps. And no other artist in the music’s history has mapped the geometry of anguish and madness so eloquently as Thelonious Monk. It is Monk’s own personal madness that is the main subject of Misterioso, a cabaret show of music, projections and monologues adapted and translated by the singer Filomena Campus from a series of poetic works by Stefano Benni.

Monk spent the final seven years of his life, until his death in 1982, in near total silence, not speaking or playing a note to anyone. Misterioso explores the possible causes of his descent, through a series of monologues in the guises of his friends and contemporaries, through Monk’s own words (recorded by singer Cleveland Watkiss), and through the biggest clue of all: Monk’s music, which is performed by an all-star band of London musicians.

Byron Wallen leads the group. Wallen is fast becoming one of the most respected trumpeters on the scene, and it is easy to see why. The ease and force of his playing, and his natural affinity with Monk’s compositions, shine light straight from the heart of the music. He embraces the theatricality of the setting, indulging in Monk’s weirdnesses and eccentricities, playing to the crowd.

Benni’s text points the finger at the indignities Monk and other jazz musicians suffered at the hands of McCarthyism as a key cause of his descent into silence, and Campus uses this as a jumping off point for a wider exploration of McCarthyism, employing text by Allen Ginsberg, and a powerful monologue in the character of Billie Holiday. Frustratingly, Holiday does not sing (though Campus does, beautifully), and her connection to Monk’s story is tenuous and a tad confusing, making perhaps too general a point. More sharp are the speeches by Pannonica Rothschild, Monk’s friend and eventual landlady, played with class and sass by Tamsin Shasha, which give us a fragmented, jigsawed picture of Monk’s highs and lows.

Though the production is at times confusing, it seems only to mirror the confusion which we can only imagine existed in Monk’s mind. The narrative is scattered, many sources and media are used, and the argument (if it is indeed that) that McCarthyism led to Monk’s evident mental illness is unconvincing and never forcibly made. One hour in, and people are dancing in the aisles, but by the end, all is subdued, and Pat Thomas (masquerading as Monk throughout) plays a lonely and bittersweet Introspection on piano, having brought us several profound steps closer to the uncomfortable, dark silence within, and having made just an intangible little bit of sense out of Monk’s madness.

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The Blurb

Assembly @ The Queen’s Hall. 14th – 17th August. 22:00 (1h30).

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