This play by three-time Obie award winner Ain Gordon, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll and premiering in New York as part of this year’s BAM Festival, has a provocation for a title: do not expect the truth. We take our seats forewarned.
But ‘not what happened’ is also a wry dig at what we choose to acknowledge as having ‘happened’ in the first place. Gordon is interested in what gets forgotten, the people we ignore as we re-tell history to serve various agendas and our own ends – which sets the scene for the play.
Enter Kim Martin-Cotton as snarky tour-guide and historical re-enactor of Silence Dalrymple, a woman from rural 1800s America. Martin-Cotton’s guide is jaded and embittered; condescending in tone and brutal in her judgement of the quick-fix commercial packaging of the past for the benefit of slack-jawed tourists – whose role we assume here – hooked on bite-sized pieces of Google.
The writing is spiky, funny and well-observed, as Martin-Cotton disgustedly waves her little tour-guide flag at us and excoriates her company’s Management, who have deemed the bread-making part of her in-costume re-enactment of Silence’s daily life to be superfluous to requirements. This is the last time she’ll be doing it.
From this point onwards, the play cuts between the frame of the present day tour and the past on which it is based, juxtaposing Martin-Cotton’s guide with the ‘real’ Silence (played by Birgit Huppuch) – superficially identical in white dresses and blue aprons – as they knead and bake the bread that visually connects them across the centuries.
There’s some great stuff here, about the cultural mores that see Silence’s husband’s life engraved for posterity in slate while her name fades from a soft-stone grave or only partially exists on pillowcases sold at market and on scraps of linen. She was never intended to be remembered.
It’s from linking such disparate ephemera, including a midwife’s journal, that Martin-Cotton’s guide excitedly describes how her version of Silence came about, in one of the play’s best scenes. She stresses that the connections are tenuous, provisional; but they feel exhilarating in the face of history’s blankness.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the recreated past feels so remote. Huppuch certainly gives an unsettling performance as a smaller, bowed Silence, speaking in the garbled shorthand of someone who (until now) has never had an audience. She is a stark figure against a projected backdrop of images taken by documentary photographer Forrest Holzapfel of farming ruins and empty landscapes.
It’s a strong and evocative aesthetic, with the bleak uncanniness of an Andrew Wyeth painting – particularly when Silence stands motionless, her back to us, in a row of long grass at the back of the stage. But as a piece of theatre, the production gets tangled up in its thesis, in the unknowability of its subject. Huppuch’s Silence never becomes more than an outline of anguish.
This isn’t helped by the unvarying tone of her scenes and the long pauses which punctuate them. These are symbolically effective at the start but contribute to an increasing sense of monotony as the play continues resolutely along the same grim plateau. We find ourselves waiting for Martin-Cotton’s guide, with her coruscating cynicism and insecurities barely masked by dry humour, to return.
We are given hints of tragedy – the loss of a child and a loveless marriage – but the Silence buried in time remains distant, suffering from the play’s complicated desire to both shine a light on those marginalised by history but also to show us the impossibility of truly recovering the past.