It’s something most foreign correspondents know well: sometimes the most effective illustration of conflict is a single, personal story, presented not with any particular agenda but simply as an invitation to think. And so it is in Robert Holman’s Making Noise Quietly, written in 1986 with the Falklands conflict still ringing in the ears; revived in 1999 as British troops joined peacekeeping efforts in the former Yugoslavia; and coming to the Donmar now as – well, insert your conflict of choice here.
Making Noise Quietly is less a trio of short plays so much as a theatrical triptych: three sections that together form a whole. The first, Being Friends, set in Kent in 1944, is a chance encounter between a young writer – rendered unfit for service by a back injury – and a conscientious objector. Loaded with innuendo and implication, it sets up a tone of introspection that runs throughout; Holman’s basic premise is that we learn by looking at something so hard that we can’t see it for anything but what it is. In the second piece, Lost, a lieutenant calls on a mother to bring confirmation of her son’s death in the Falklands. A supremely understated duologue, it’s bulging at the seams as man and mother rein in their emotions in the face of increasingly trying revelations. The third piece, Making Noise Quietly, is the only one in which the encounter risks feeling forced: a British squaddie gone AWOL with his eight-year-old son meets a German painter and concentration camp survivor in the middle of the Black Forest.
This final piece is the most open-ended of the three, and also the most directly provocative – here are three people who simply cannot come to terms with the effect of conflict or violence: a father who, with his domestic and military lives falling apart, has run away; a child, so bullied and confused he’s lost speech and communicates only in screams and by writing on his arm; and the painter Helene, who’s retreated to the middle of the forest and remains unsurprisingly unable to come to terms with the horrors she suffered at Birkenau. It’s in constant danger of feeling too abstract or disjointed, but evades this by always bringing us back to the themes begun in the previous two pieces: Helene’s torture could well have been concurrent with Being Friends; the squaddie’s broken relationship is a perfect mirroring of the dead soldier’s marriage in Lost. And throughout the final section are allusions to the triptych overall: three characters spanning three generations, communicating in three modes of painting, speaking and writing; a solider who had three months leave from the army to sort out his private life, and happens across a painter in the middle of a three-month retreat; and for good measure, Paul Wills’ design has Helene sat at a three-legged easel next to three tall trees – you get the point.
And so we move through time, generations, attitudes, and conflict serves as the trigger for broader questions: how a young-ish man might come to terms with his homosexuality; how another young man might deal with the pressure of following in the footsteps of his high-achieving family; how a third must deal with single parenthood; how the mother of a fourth spins a white lie about her son’s death to make it all just a little more bearable. It’s all very measured and, for what it is, beautifully produced – faultless performances brought together in a well-crafted production; but you can’t help wondering if it’s all a bit too understated. Making Noise Quietly will probably play out its run to comfortable houses and then be quietly forgotten for another 15 years until someone else realises it’s time for a revival, at which point we’ll all smile to ourselves at the irony of Lost’s mother musing that nobody will remember the Falklands War. It’s like theatre’s awkward uncle, reminding us that we’ve seen all this horror and strife before; and will keep on saying it until someone takes him seriously.