Nathalie is a young Canadian painter who comes to London in the summer of 2005, shortly after the July 7 bombings. She’s part of a ten-strong group of international artists taking part in a competition: the prize is a solo show at Tate Modern.
Nathalie appears to be a frontrunner, a promising and inspirational talent whose paintings are declared ‘brilliant’ by everyone who’s seen them – apart from Rob, a Canadian ex-boyfriend who cares more about his dog and seems perplexed by her passion for art. Only trouble is, almost as soon as she gets to London, Nathalie intuits that something’s going wrong. She’s haunted by the bombings; she watches a coke-snorting acquaintance apparently dissolving into a ‘violence sex dance’; she leaves a private viewing at the Tate with the previous year’s winner and ends up unconscious in a nightclub toilet; she endures a perilous night with a banker called Ian.
More significantly still, she finds she can no longer paint: her previous efforts make her feel sick; she leaves her studio full of blank canvases; she rules herself out of the competition. Eventually, she flies home – in a borrowed ‘piss-dress’ – and finds that life back in Canada is similarly claustrophobic. Planning to stay on her aunt’s apple farm in the country and make a fresh start, she instead goes into the garage and hangs herself.
This isn’t a spoiler. The first line of this unusual piece announces that The Big Smoke is ‘a story from the summer I died’ and the parallels with the lives and deaths of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Virginia Woolf are made plain from the outset. Nathalie is, on one level at least, the archetypal young artist, boomed to the skies for her promise and then destroyed by the pressures exerted on her to succeed – on the terms of those around her, rather than her own.
The Plath parallel is readily apparent – Plath, after all, came to England as a feted Fulbright scholar in the 1950s – but the American poet’s path to self-destruction was considerably more complex than Nathalie’s, as indeed were Woolf’s and Sexton’s. In fact, although references to these three real-life artist suicides (a mention of ‘a room of one’s own’, a nod to Plath’s poem ‘Perfect’) add resonance to the piece, there’s something not quite right about the fit: Nathalie’s quarrel with the world and herself never expands into the same tragic space as those of Plath, Woolf and Sexton.
That said, what makes The Big Smoke unusual, if not entirely extraordinary, is its method of delivering Nathalie’s story. On a bare stage with only a retro 50s microphone for a prop, Amy Nostbakken sings what is, in effect, a solo, a cappella operetta: her powerful and fluid voice swoops and hovers on anguished, elongated vowels, before imitating intercom buzzers and ringing phones, or descending into deadpan recitative and growling imitations of Ian, Daphne, Martha and the other characters who come to plague Nathalie’s ill-fated month in London. If Billie Holiday or Edith Piaf had ever sung a score by Harrison Birtwistle, it might have sounded something like this. It makes for a kind of suicide baroque, and while, at times, this can seem oddly disengaging, at others it generates moments of pathos and power – Nathalie recalling childhood memories of lying in snow, for instance, or evoking her helplessness in front of a blank canvas. If, as a play exploring the complexities of creativity and psychosis, The Big Smoke doesn’t quite deliver, as a performance it has a quicksilver brilliance which certainly does.