Thursday, 24 January 2013

Theatre review: The Silence of the Sea

For the final Donmar Trafalgar production, Simon Evans directs Vercors' The Silence of the Sea, set in a recently-occupied French fishing village. An Older Man (Finbar Lynch) has kept himself pretty much to himself for most of his life, but he's recently been joined in his hilltop home by a Young Woman (Simona Bitmaté,) his niece. When the Germans arrive a young officer, Werner (Leo Bill) is stationed to live in their upstairs room. Right from the start Werner is talkative, giving enthusiastic speeches to the pair about his philosophical beliefs and his excitement to finally be in a country he always dreamed of visiting, insensible to the fact that these are people whose nation he's invaded. In his monologues to them he almost seems not to notice how they're responding to his unwanted presence in their home: For the entire duration of his stay, the Man and Woman don't speak a single word to him.

Vercors' novel has been adapted for the stage by Anthony Weigh, who has fashioned the story into a series of monologues - Werner lectures to his unresponsive hosts, the Older Man narrates to the audience, the Young Woman barely speaks at all - but with a conversational style that stops and starts, the characters regularly stopping mid-sentence and starting again, as if when they do break their silence the right words are hard to come by.

The Silence of the Sea is an interesting choice as a directing showcase as it has an obvious simplicity but it's also apparent how much Evans has to build the ultimate effect of the play around the sound effects (sound design by Gregory Clarke) which punctuate the action, describe what's going on offstage, and sometimes contradict Werner's view of events. I thought he effectively brought all the elements together to create something atmospheric and in some ways unexpected. Lynch's world-weary narration sometimes cuts across the German's idealistic speeches, while the near-silent Bitmaté has moments of powerful physicality.

But it's Bill's part that's pivotal, because for all that this is a story of the French Resistance, it isn't, as it first appears, that of ordinary people destroying an evil oppressor; rather, it turns out to be the story of a good man who slowly realises his side are the bad guys, and is broken by the knowledge. Bill plays the bluff well as his earnest enthusiasm at the start comes across as callous, but it gradually becomes apparent he's bought into the propaganda and genuinely believes he's helping bring the world together in peace. As the uncle and niece leave him to talk himself into a corner and see the cruelty of his fellow Germans, this ends up being a quietly powerful, understated but haunting way to end this showcase for former Assistant Directors at the Donmar.

The Silence of the Sea by Vercors in a version by Anthony Weigh is booking until the 2nd of February at Trafalgar Studio 2.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

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