They are well matched, this trio of young men, they cling together like Vladimir and Estragon in a kind of absurdist whirlpool, that, like the live sound samples Josh Grigg loops for effects, keep coming at you again and again, each time a variation on a theme. At first though, they hang back on the edges of Denisa Dumitrescu’s black, dark stage, permeated with props painted in white. It seems like they don’t want to start, waiting in the silence as much as we are. But it’s a held, tense silence, punctuating what is to come before it has come.
There’s a great deal of this in Kay Michael’s UK premiere of Norwegian writer Arne Lygre’s Then Silence. It seems as important as the ten survival stories the men tell – more important perhaps: that gasp or breath of possibility before one of them commands or cries out in exhausted agony “A man at a distance of two other men” or “A woman at a distance of two other men” down the microphone, the signal for them to re-imagine the world. It is the silence in which any story can be told and the one that is (as the actors switch tense, narrative voice and relate stage directions) asks, over and over, why this one? Why now and why are these the stories that we relate, over and over, to ourselves?
The wonder of Arne Lygre’s writing is that he takes all that we know about storytelling, all that we can gather from its safe structures, into these little separate ten narratives and destroys them. We need stories to reassure ourselves about who we are, we tell them to give ourselves a sense of identity, to understand others, but Lygre takes away the symbiotic exchange between teller and listener so that we no longer trust. We cannot comprehend “Who is I?” or “Don’t I know what I am?” In fact, it is not up to the audience to comprehend or the characters themselves, but, we realise, through the power of the microphone, it is the storyteller who is the decision maker, the one who thinks, even if that story teller keeps changing. Whoever has the microphone has the power, whoever can shout the loudest has the power, whoever can direct the story has the power.
The actors themselves are like energised and passionate anthropologists, or hapless curators, male Scheherazades (at one point one character holds up a white box representing a man’s ashes as if Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp). The tension and connection between anthropology and theatre is made and explored.
Kay Michael’s interpretation is not naturalistic, though. If anyone had stopped and chanted “Zero, zero and zero” whilst looking out of a window with a telescope, they would not have been out of place. But this is a good thing: she strips back the comfort any sense of naturalism the stories may bring by minimising colour and light down to grey and dark. It is a deconstruction of any traditional realism that may be insinuated in the text.
Overall, the power of the piece comes from two contrasting elements: Arne Lygre’s sometimes haunting and emotionally invested descriptive dialogue exchanges, with Kay Michael’s fragmented staging and afterimages that defy total context, date, time and place. Her interpretation does not allow an audience to relax into the traditional forward movement of the story. Yet conversely, we are unbearably reminded of the present, of being.
All the cast give very physical, vigorous and committed performances. Peter Clements as the Brother is all stingingness and nerves and contempt. Peter Hobday’s One is caught between duty and fear. James Marchant’s Another is an expression of despair.
Then Silence’s last words and images are terrifying and engulfing. Neither Arne Lygre nor Kay Michael offer an appeasing answer to what has been witnessed onstage. It is an experience of contrary emotions and desolation with, at times, a dash of painful comedy.
Then Silence can be seen at The Other Room, Cardiff, 6th-23rd October 2015. For more details visit EmptyDeck.com