For a work wearing the title Not Talking, there’s a barrel-load of dialogue to wade through in Mike Bartlett’s first play, an emotionally hard-hitting drama that touches on both the political and personal by way of two couples, even though, strikingly, they never speak directly to each other. Not Talking rummages around the couples’ secrets, breaking down walls of silence as their four stories become intertwined. Thanks to powerful writing and strong performances, the play cleverly exposes the loneliness behind each character as they cling onto a façade of fortitude and strength as camouflage.
As the four monologues unfold, speeches appear closer in form to a piece to camera than live theatre, and it’s clear that interactions between characters are stripped to the bare minimum, used only later on in the play as a devise to integrate stories. Never, though, between couples.
With such a static form, it’s no surprise that Bartlett (of Doctor Foster, King Charles III, and Albion fame) initially adapted this play for radio over a decade ago. It’s been brought to the stage for the first time by Defibrillator’s James Hillier, and it’s a credit to Hillier’s direction that it’s hard to imagine just listening and not watching as characters physically transform in the journey towards conscious change.
Amanda and Mark are two young soldiers who become friends. He watches her being raped by a sergeant, who then forces both of them into silence. James and Lucy are a middle aged couple who are hanging by a thread and no longer able to paper over the cracks. After years of estrangement, both reveal that a miscarriage pulled them apart and made them too fearful to try again for a child. James’s decision to become a conscientious objector in WWII then delivered him into the arms of a lover, his affair with whom will eventually destroy the remains of a hollow marriage.
While truths are laid bare throughout, they are interjected by thoughtfully mapped out moments of stillness; a pause and suspension of breath before delivering the play’s hardest revelations. Sometimes, these revelations are excruciating to hear and tragic to watch as each character spiral deeper into murky waters with every new discovery.
Here, what works brilliantly is the palpable presence of the actors waiting in the wings, while the spotlight focuses on another. Powerful dramatic impulses are framed by Amy Jane Cook’s simple, yet effective lighting system. When characters speak, they stand bathed in a square of bright, white light, while others fade into the background. They are, however, as Bartlett wanted, very much there and a physical presence looming out of the shadows.
The play opens with spotlight on Lucy tinkering away at the piano – an amateur rendition of Chopin – connecting her, it turns out, to Amanda, who later plays from the same sheet music. There is a beautiful symmetry between the two women connected through music, which they both use as a tool to avoid speech. Themes of music, language and silence bounce off the theatre’s walls in a tense interplay of narratives and emotional crescendos.
Performances are beat perfect, with exacting pitch and tone leading to subtle physical gearshifts noticeable in all four actors. When David Horovitch as James reveals that his baby is no more, he tightens his chest, his jaw slackens, his bodyweight slumps forward as he brandishes his specs out to the audience with a fixed stare that speaks volumes – we instantly sense that tragedy is afoot.
Meanwhile, Gemma Lawrence’s Amanda is quiet but powerful, her stomach pulsating in an army barracks disco scene, fingers rubbing repetitively up against her palm, a nervous tick to help her through the rape monologue. If her deadpan direct tone sounds emotionless, it only serves to heighten such a vulnerable demeanour.
Lawrence Walker is an energetic and naïve Mark, built for “following orders” and tragically incapable of breaking away from the constraints imposed by his army training, even when he’s watched first-hand the brutality of Amanda’s treatment. Was fear of not following orders really enough to make him shut up in the face of abusive savagery?
Less convincing is the chance meeting of James and Amanda. When James stumbles around the army barracks, apparently saving Amanda from suicide, the scene feels highly improbable. Yet at the same time you can’t help but be moved by her request for a hug and a cup of tea, as he ferries her out of the brutal barracks and off to safety. After all, this is still the stuff of fiction, despite it’s gritty, realistic take on relationships and the disturbing mistreatment of women in military service.
Not Talking is at the Arcola Theatre until June 2nd. For more details, click here.