In the vaulted hall of Assembly Roxy, a lone stage stands adorned with empty pint glasses and a portable speaker. As the audience enter, the sound of howling wind picks up and a lone figure takes the stage, dejectedly wandering amongst the glasses and pulling their parka tight in an attempt to ward off the elements. Once the audience take their seats, The Guitar Man finally finds shelter and can begin his final song.
So begins Surrogate Productions’ adaptation, and the UK premiere, of The Guitar Man. Written by Jon Fosse in 1997, and translated by Louis Muinzer, the play is an ode to hopelessness and life as an outcast. The one-person show follows the titular Guitar Man, here played by Renee Williams in a gender-blind casting, as he attempts to find meaning in his life and laments his losses. It is a tragic exploration of accepting one’s place in the world even if that means giving up one’s hopes and dreams, and Williams captures the sorrow and tragedy of The Guitar Man well. That said, at times her performance comes across as flat and her voice gets lost in the Roxy’s sizeable hall.
The Guitar Man utilises a mix of spoken word, music, and silence in order to tell its story, crafting an avant-garde experience that is, at times, reminiscent of Beckett. Unfortunately this avant-garde approach doesn’t always succeed. The spoken aspect of the play is certainly poetic, and is highly reflective of Fosse’s style of writing which often uses repetition and poetic devices to craft the monologue. More often than not though, it comes across as pretentious with the repetition feeling less poetic and more like waffling; one cannot help but wonder how much has been lost in translation. Similarly, the silence never feels particularly poignant or powerful, instead only serving to break the sections of the Guitar Man’s monologue.
As for the musical aspect, well this certainly works within the context of the show, with the music quickly becoming the primary metaphor for the Guitar Man’s state of being; but that doesn’t make it any less painful to endure at times. Williams plucks high-pitched notes on the guitar, vaguely forming them into a coherent tune, conveying the character’s own pain and lack of direction in life before eventually ripping the strings straight from the instrument in frustration. It is a heartbreakingly tragic act to watch, but also one that sadly feels rather understated and the performance suffers as a result.
The Guitar Man, as a play, is certainly as relevant today as it was in 1997 when it was first written, through its attempt to address issues of hopelessness and lack of belonging in a post-industrial age. Ultimately, however, its modernist stylings and execution mean that it fails to be as powerful as it might hope.