Nothing | National Theatre of Parramatta

Image by Noni Carroll Photography

There is something particularly chilling about listening to children work through some of life’s great conundrums like unfairness or death. They haven’t adopted either the niceties or the distracting justifications upon which adults couch these conversations so the ideas are laid bare and shocking. In Nothing, adapted for the stage by Pelle Koppel from the controversial 2000 novel by Janne Teller, a group of children grapple with perhaps the largest question of all: the meaning of life.

In a small Danish town one day, a school boy named Pierre-Anthon comes to the conclusion that life is meaningless and nothing matters. He promptly abandons school and takes up residence in the plum tree in his front yard from which he can dispense his newfound wisdom to unsuspecting townspeople passing by. The other children in his year take offence to Pierre-Anthon’s nihilism and hatch a plan to convince him that things do matter. They begin by gathering their most prized possessions, the things that matter most to them in the world, in a “heap of meaning” at the sawmill. A few books, a fishing rod, some sandals; the heaps begins slowly. But soon, as they egg each other on and challenge each other to sacrifice more and more precious things to the heap of meaning, the project takes on a grim tone. When it’s complete, the group of teens garner national and international attention, so much so that they’re able to sell the heap of meaning to a prestigious museum in the US. But if their heap of meaning had a monetary value, even a very large one, did that negate how precious and meaningful it was at all? Was Pierre-Anthon right this whole time? After sacrificing so much, the teens can’t face the answer.

Koppel’s adaptation structured the script of Nothing through the eyes of Agnes as she narrates the story of what happened in her town from memory. Co-performers Alyona Popova and Joseph Raboy voice each of the kids in the heap of meaning project alongside Agnes’s foreshadowing narration. The effect was lively with Popova and Raboy constructing a chorus of characters through unique mannerisms and repeated identifying nicknames. The structure also allowed an element of anonymity for each of the participating teens, a sense that they worked as a mob rather than individuals, which served to amplify the horror and spread it throughout the atmosphere as the teens committed more gruesome and cruel crimes against each other. In this way, the mob mentality of Teller’s novel was aligned with more well-known examples like William Golding’s the Lord of the Flies while also convincingly translating the emotion of the mob on to the audience as witnesses.

Director Erin Taylor demonstrated expert control of the tone and pacing of the production by balancing the energy and humour of the teenaged characters against their troubling violence. The trajectory from Pierre-Anthon’s somewhat laughable proclamations from the plum tree, literally amplified by a drop-down microphone like in WWE wrestling match, to the heartache of the teens when their great plan was met with scorn was unexpected but the trustworthy guidance by Taylor’s keen ear for narration made it seamless. The set design by Kelsey Lee placed the teens on a steep, sloped surface, culminating in a corner at the back of the stage. Towering slatted walls allowed for mesmerising light displays by lighting designer Kate Baldwin where shafts of golden light pierced the air of the cavernous space. The sloped stage and use of old, worn wood gave the set the old-world appearance of a folktale but also cleverly provided literal momentum for the story as the performers ran, jumped, and slid up and down the stage. The environment, while simple, was actively involved in the story-telling and allowed for evocative uses of space and physicality.

Both Raboy and Papova offered convincing portrayals of their young characters which balanced the advantages and disadvantages of their youthful naivety. Raboy displayed a particular versatility when moving through the various teenaged boy characters who ranged from dead-pan condescension to seething aggression and soft vulnerability. Popova, especially in her portrayal of Sophie, one of the teens charged with giving up her innocence to the heap of meaning, as well as her position as Agnes the narrator was able to harbour the emotional build of the narrative arc including the tense and sinister increase in violence. The dynamic between the two performers was fluid and buoyant which greatly aided in smoothing the frequent transitions in place and character. Raboy and Popova always remained in control of the many moving parts of the story which kept the audience in-step with the action throughout.

Nothing was a challenging production on two levels. The existential examination of meaning was complex and shifting, never quite reaching a solid conclusion. But the added shock of the disturbing mix of children and violence, innocence and cruelty, doubly complicated the experience of watching and witnessing. Yet, from a rich original text and an innovative adaptation, came a thrilling drama told with deft skill and carefully crafted theatre-making.

Nothing ran at Riverside Theatres from September 1st – 10th

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