Misterioso by David Walter Hall




Poems by Stefano Benni, adapted by Filomena Campus
Monologues by David Walter Hall

The alleged love affair between legendary jazz pianist Thelonious Monk and extraordinary art patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter (née Rothschild) inspires this surrealist theatre piece based around a cycle of poems written by the acclaimed Italian satirist Stefano Benni. Misterioso looks at the life and music of Monk, a genius and outsider, who spent the last seven years of his life in complete silence. His music permeates the show, played live by some of the UK’s finest jazz artists.

For the show’s 2009 incarnation, I was asked to add extended monologues and narration for the character of Pannonica, and to act as a dramaturg, shaping the text for the show.



London-based collective Theatralia inject Stefano Benni’s play Misterioso with a dose of beatnik heroin. Misterioso explores the relationship of legendary pianist Thelonius Monk with aristocratic arts patron Baroness Rothschild (Pannonica). Jazz aficionados will by thrilled by the ensemble of seasoned musicians, who will transport them to an NYC Jazz club in McCarthy-era America. Tony Kofi blows away the cobwebs with his sax, Orphy Robinson competes with a projection of a ’50s cartoon character on vibes, and Pat Thomas’ subtle piano invokes the presence of the late Monk, who spent the last seven years of his life in silence. Magical music and audience toe-tapping is given a menacing undertone with Pannonica’s tragic anecdote, about a cop hitting Monk’s hands with a baton after he asks for refreshment in a whites-only hotel. Misterioso culminates with a projection of Monk rotating like a whirling dervish, a metaphor for mounting racial tension. Sympathetic direction and uplifting vocals by Filomena Campus, evoke the feel of the Beat Generation’s Big Apple Ex-drum and bass MC Cleveland Watkiss brings Monk’s narrative to life with his booming voiceover, whilst Thomas is the physical embodiment of the silent Thelonius, chiaroscuro highlighting him like a Zurbaran painting, giving gravitas to the myth of a musical legend.


Live Jazz, jamming and the silence of Monk

I’ll come clean early on – I am a jazz agnostic. I don’t believe this niche style is truly knowable and rarely find it enjoyable, specifically the form I now know to be Bebop, a faster, complex, erratic style that negotiates the fine line between nursery school, raucous percussion and chaotic jamming, and which occasionally shifts imperceptiblyinto something cool, rhythmic and quite beautiful. Few get it right; fortunately the few were in Hammersmith tonight, by the Riverside.

Thelonious Monk, a founder and master of this style, struggled to establish his music during the Fifties and Sixties through the segregation and unrest that hounded the lives of black Americans. An early minor possession charge left him without a performer’s licence, leaving him unable to work in NY, the city he loved, for six years. Here he’s is befriended by the improbably monikered Pannonica ‘Nica’ Rothschild, who becomes his patron and friend for the rest of his life and narrates his story through actress Tamsin Shasha.

Nica appears in between the music dancing in the midst of the musicians and tells of her time with Monk. These narratives are enlivened by Shasha’s energy, but are too brief to give more than a brief insight into Monk, his inspiration, his music and the silence he descended into, a silence that interrupted and ended a career filled with innovative, sublime sounds.

Without a doubt, even taking into account Shasha’s spectacular gravity-defying danc,e hanging between silk sheets high above the stage, Misterioso is as much about the musicians and their live music as the man, Monk. Featuring various guest musicians throughout the run, such as Toni Kofi on sax and Orphy Robinson on Vibraphone, (a serious Xylophone with an incredible jazzy sound) they conjure unexpected delights out of the seeming chaos that is Bebop.

Thelonious Monk undoubtedly created some fine, ageless music and suffered for his art, leaving him withdrawn. Misterioso never quite illuminates why this happened, remaining more a jazz gig with occasional theatre. However, it does introduce another interesting character in Pannonica, Jazz Baroness and the friend who looked after Monk during his final silent years.

Geoff Ambler

Science is a Lie

Vibrantly silent and delicately loud, Misterioso is a sensitive and intriguing exploration of the curious life of Thelonious Monk. A five piece jazz band form the focal point of the show, punctuated by narrative interludes from Monk’s close friend, Baroness Pannonica played by Tamsin Shasha. Written by David Walter Hall, Pannonica’s speeches are both deftly crafted and emotively delivered.

The musical core of the piece, with its impressive bass slapping and choreography, is captivatingly frenetic, yet also intuitively crisp. This is complemented by the often frenzied digital projection and text – designed by SDNA – that encompasses the entire back wall of the stage. A sense of ordered chaos is created, and of being on the edge of understanding.

The action that takes place within this sound world is varied and stimulating. It is at times hedonistic, as Shasha distributes wine to the cabaret style tables at the front of the stage. It is at times wild, as members of the audience are encouraged to dance and absorb the jazz club atmosphere. Yet it is also at times contemplative, as both Shasha and Christina Oshunniyi (who plays both Monk’s wife, Nellie, and Billie Holiday) take a back seat and allow the music to reign supreme.

Misterioso moves between the extravagant and impetuous, and the subdued and almost bewildering. Although there could perhaps be a little more of Monk’s life told through story, Shasha’s subtly incorporated aerial work at the end of the piece reflects the way that music, and indeed silence, has the power to transcend words.

Helena S. Rampley

The Telegraph

How Monkish was Monk?

Beware those surnames which lead you on. Like that of Thelonious Monk, for example. How much truth really is there in the story that in his maturity he increasingly observed Trappist vows? Stefano Benni’s play “Misterioso – A journey into the silence of Thelonious Monk” directed by Filomena Campus, at Riverside Studios, does its best to keep that myth simmering, and where possible spices it up. I’m looking forward to reading a new biography by Robin Kelley which, I hear, puts some of the myths about Monk into perspective, and may even start to lay some of the wilder ones to rest.

What is Misterioso? First, and simplest, it is a good jazz gig. The theatre is set up as a club. Director Campus, originally from Sardinia, has assembled a classy band. At one point the audience is encouraged to dance. Vibes player Orphy Robinson – who isn’t doing all the performances – is a national treasure. I just love the warmth and humanity he radiates from the bandstand. Winston Clifford on drums and Tony Kofi on alto sax also feed in energy and humour. Campus herself is a highly musical singer. The music was continually bringing a smile to many faces in the audience.

And the music by Monk being showcased is definitely capable of looking after itself. Here’s a safe prediction: new generations of musicians are going to continue to absorb the harmony, the language, the emotional directness of Monk’s evergreen and unique tunes for ever. The dreamy sensuality of “Round Midnight”, the slinkiness of “Blue Monk” are for every season. These are great tunes which simply can’t be uninvented. Last night the band were also digging hard into the hip bravado and swing of “I Mean You” and “Well You Needn’t”. They also took excursions into free jazz, a reminder of that part of Monk’s heritage and influence. Pianist Pat Thomas, who certainly looked the part of Monk, came into his own in these episodes.

Among the other elements was “projected artwork” from digital artists SDNA, which sometimes added – Orphy Robinson had an outrageous back-projected cartoon vibes player behind him for company at one point, there was a diorama of classic jazz photos. But sometimes – pithy Brechtian epigrams – it disrupted the flow. And sometimes projected onto the back wall was the eerie shadow of bassist David Leahy carrying his bass by the neck like Hieronymus Bosch’s Christ: I just hope the instrument is covered for this on insurance.

There was also something of the lecture about the evening. The sonorous recorded voice of Cleveland Watkiss dwelt on the politics of the McCarthy era. Campus instructed us at one point to “Listen to the sounds of his last silence,” and occasionally drifted into Italian interior monologue.

I wasn’t really convinced that it worked as a drama: there was not enough narrative to get hold of. The best moments were when Tamsin Shasha as Monk’s Baroness Nica was telling the story of some of the more improbable escapades from her travels with Monk. Shasha is both versatile and elegant: not only did she convince with her prim cut-glass Patricia Hodge, and diction to die for, but also was impressive when being lofted upwards as a butterfly.

Misterioso runs at Riverside Studios till November 8th. It is an interesting and highly varied evening, but somehow manages to be less than the sum of its parts.

Sebastian Scotney