The recent translation of Don DeLillo’s work into other mediums has fully shown his fascination with language, and how it can take on the qualities of cultural malaise. If David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Cosmopolis envisioned a future where all language has become formal, and contractual, like legalese, The Word for Snow – the European premiere of a piece originally commissioned by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, presented here as part of the London Literature Festival – looks to a future where a universal language is the only hope.
Filing into the Purcell Room on the South Bank , audience members are handed pieces of paper printed with short phrases or single words – mine was ‘Old Slavonic Church’ and my companion’s was ‘snow’.
The three chairs lined up on the stage suitably give the impression that we are about to witness a read-through. However, Jack McNamara’s production is more elaborate that the set-up suggests, using projections and eastern-tinged music, performed live, to create a subterranean, hallucinatory atmosphere.
DeLillo’s characters remained nameless, as though individual characteristics themselves have been rubbed out in this future. A pilgrim, played earnestly by Stephen Chance, seeks out a distinguished professor of eschatology, who has retired to a mountaintop in East Asia in despair. On arrival, the pilgrim finds his hero (Jasper Britton) has become silent, using only a suited interpreter, who bears an odd physical resemblance to Jorge Luis Borges. Despite the sketchiness of characterisation, the actors manage to invest some personality into their roles.
Britton does his best to inject weariness into his elliptical utterances, while Thomas Grube’s dry delivery as the interpreter leavens the air of solemnity. The interspersed footage projected behind them shows a polar bear swimming across fragments of ice, desperately trying to secure ground. We learn that snow has become ‘the word for snow’ on paper, suggesting that climate change has reached its terrible conclusion.
The scholar breaks his own silence when he starts communicating in the ‘Old Church Slavonic’, a language unknown to the interpreter. Old Church Slavonic is the oldest Slavic liturgical language, suggesting that language to describe the everyday has become useless. At the end, a chorus of characters come on singing in the Old Slavonic Church. This barefoot line up includes women (strikingly absent from the rest of the play) and children. This suggests at least society will continue in some shape or form. However, it is hard to be relieved by the hopeful ending when nothing was really at stake in the first place. The apocalypse hinted at never seems to loom close enough, and the link between language and climate change remains shadowy. The Pilgrim says at one point:, paraphrased, “Even our catastrophes fail because we’re human”, suggesting earlier this is just another prophesied end which will not come to pass.
McNamara has previously brought DeLillo’s Valparaiso to the stage, and is clearly at ease with DeLillo’s signature themes. His production makes the best of the scant material, and manages to convey a greater sense of depth than is apparent through the writing itself.