North of the Sunset explores the life of one of jazz’s most singular geniuses through the eyes of his intimate companion, the English heiress Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter, with Monk’s iconic music played live in trio format throughout.
It is a story of complicated relationships – between Nica, Monk and his wife Nellie – and of the heavy toll taken on them by Monk’s fluctuating mental and physical health and his unjust treatment in an America that took little notice of him until it was almost too late.
Monk was born in a poor rural community in the Southern United States, and brought up in a tiny New York apartment with his mother and sisters. By contrast Nica was an heiress, a member of the Rothschild banking dynasty by birth and a baroness by marriage, her English country childhood swaddled in unimaginable privilege. Yet they forged a deep connection that was as unlikely as it was absolute.
It began in Paris, hanging out after a gig, in 1952. It was almost certainly the first time Monk had ever met anyone from Nica’s rarefied world. Yet it was not her first encounter with him, as she had already become entranced by his music several years earlier, and was determined to meet him.29 years and many adventures later, Monk eked out the final years of his life as Nica’s reclusive house guest, becoming a stranger to his wife and himself.
Why did Monk spend the last seven years of his life as a hermit? Why did he choose to live at Nica’s New Jersey mansion, while his wife crossed the Hudson river every day to bring him his meals? How did the extraordinary relationship persist between Monk, his wife Nellie and Nica for nearly 30 years? Both women remained absolutely loyal to him until his death. And what did Nica discover in that first recording she heard of Monk’s composition “‘Round Midnight” that paralysed her, made her listen to it 50 times, made her miss her plane and changed every inch of her life?
Inspired by his work on Theatralia’s Misterioso at Riverside Studios in 2009 – written by Stefano Benni, adapted and directed by Filomena Campus – David Walter Hall has created his own distinctive take on this fascinating story to coincide with Monk’s centenary. While Misterioso was an abstract, Brechtian exploration of Monk’s mind, North of the Sunset tells the story more directly, focusing on the lives and relationships of Nica, Monk and Nellie, in intimate scenes of friendship, love and frustration.