Adapted from Janne Teller’s controversial 2000 novel of the same name, NOTHING begins with a young boy asserting that nothing in life matters. As his classmates attempt to prove Pierre Anthon wrong by finding meaning in their own lives, events take a dark, Secret History-style turn.
Each member of the group is required to sacrifice a possession that is important to them, in order to gather physical proof of life’s meaning that will change Pierre Anthon’s mind. It starts innocently enough with DVD box sets and trainers, but as gang mentality takes hold of the teenagers, their demands become increasingly cruel.
A girl who hates blood is forced to behead a stray dog; a guitar player has his index finger cut off; a grave is dug to retrieve the coffin of one girl’s baby brother. It feels very Lord of the Flies as each victim is picked off one by one by their peers, and although it’s shocking, the way in which events spiral out of control is also worryingly believable.
Chillingly plausible too is the adult world’s response to the young group’s activities. Their assembled ‘heap of meaning’ is lauded by critics and press as genius – its purchase by a New York art gallery is announced in a cheesy, corporate speech by the only adult in the cast. His appearance is a jarringly effective moment, and the scene invites another spin on the concept of meaning. While the ‘heap’ has been translated into monetary worth, it has also been defined as art, which is subject to personal interpretation and can never have just one meaning.
Directed by Bryony Shanahan, the Royal Exchange Young Company cast are a confident, tightly-knit unit. They perform with as much energy and conviction as a group of professional actors, making NOTHING a truly compelling watch.
Shanahan and the Company also deserve recognition for the clever and effective staging of this production. A sense of both tension and herd mentality is created in a really simple way, with the twenty strong cast swarming around the intimate Studio space, surrounding the audience in constant sound and movement. Each character’s possession is clipped to a carabiner hook and suspended over the stage, a permanently visible reminder of what the group have done, and much more aesthetically pleasing than a heap.
Symbolism is relied on to portray the more extreme and violent events. Each character wears a rucksack, which acts as an unsettling visual reminder of their youthful ‘innocence’ and holds their own meaning – the girl who surrenders her virginity to the collection has her rucksack stripped off her back and ripped open by three of the boys in a horrifyingly effective scene.
NOTHING is a powerful expression of humankind’s deepest, darkest fears that is guaranteed to throw even those with bucketloads of conviction and life purpose into an existential crisis. It’s fantastic.