We must keep talking, writing and listening to each other – however unfair the world and impossible the circumstances – for as long as we can. Because silence is the victory of oppression and self-regard. That theme pulses through Eve Leigh’s assured first full-length play, a sometimes fascinating two-hander directed with claustrophobic intensity by Tom Mansfield.
The title’s ‘silent planet’ alludes to a tale about a nearby world in which the heavens are just a mirror reflecting the indolent, thoughtless society below. “And when they look into the sky, they are struck dumb. By the greatness of their works,” says dissident writer Gavriil to his interrogator, Yurchak. He’s imprisoned somewhere in the USSR at the height of the Cold War and he’s recounting a short story by Andrei Donatovich Sinyavsky, AKA Abram Tertz, a Russian writer imprisoned in 1966 for anti-Soviet writing.
Such storytelling becomes a lifeline between interrogator and prisoner, at a time in history when censored writing and subversive action were intimately – and far more than just conceptually – related: political parables yoked to social activism through the harshness of the punishment meted out to those who wrote them. And Leigh writes well about the power of language to enforce as well as challenge. In the nightmarish terminology of his detainment, Gavriil is a ‘patient’; resistance to the Soviet state pathologised as mental illness.
Who controls words, their meaning and their intention, ripples throughout the play – from the books in the prison library Yurchak can’t access without breaking the law, to Gavriil’s account of these books to his interrogator in what feels increasingly like a precious social contract. Both men have their assigned roles in a system that subsists on opposition and dominance, but the Russian writers Gavriil brings into the room interrupt this dichotomy. They bring questions.
One of the best aspects of the play is the complexity of the relationship between captor and captive. As portrayed with gruff uncertainty by Matthew Thomas (Yurchak) and anguished cynicism by Graeme McKnight (Gavriil), their hostility verges into something almost romantic as their storytelling – its illicitness – defines their sessions. And as their arrangement runs (inevitably) into danger, their need for what the other offers – defiance of the world through imaginative escape – feels as urgent, as uncertain and as intimate as love.
Petra Hjortsberg’s stripped back design – utilitarian metal chairs and a table and a handful of concrete blocks against a backdrop of uncovered bulbs hanging from the ceiling – gestures economically at time, place and idea while not distracting us from the protagonists. But it’s also an aesthetic that feels overly familiar in light of the prison-based set-up – a Kafkaesque look and feel recognisable from countless productions.
A welcome vein of mordant humour prevents proceedings from becoming overwrought, but the play has trouble knowing when (and how) to finish. Characters are introduced who feel underutilised and rush the play to its conclusion. And some choppily paced final scenes, each of which feels like an ending, lack the slow-build ominousness of what’s gone before. Ironically, but maybe appropriately, the otherwise great Silent Planet is too reluctant to have its last word.