A play about occupation and resistance, in all its many forms, The Silence of the Sea – written by Vercors (the Frenchman Jean Bruller) in 1941, in reaction to the Nazi occupation of France – was part of the ‘cultural resistance’ movement, and remains an eloquent reminder that oppression is dehumanising, no matter how polite and polished your oppressor may be.
Anthony Weigh’s new version (tautly directed by Simon Evans) maximises this theme beautifully. His Werner (a nervy, fidgeting Leo Bill) is an unexpectedly affable Aryan, a blonde Bertie Wooster whose naïve, nervous burbling could be charming were it not undercut with the careless appropriation of the conqueror: he comments that the views are better ‘from a tank’ and quickly claims emotional ownership of the local landscape and the cottage he is billeted in, blithely assuring his French hosts that their two peoples are the same, anyway, so what does it matter who is in charge – an easy attitude to take, of course, when you’re on the winning side. It’s hard to dislike him, a man whose natural good natured temperament is opposed to war and who genuinely wants to be liked by his ‘hosts’, but the play smartly undercuts this amiability with the arrogance of his assumptions.
Finbar Lynch is the French peasant who finds himself unwillingly pulled into the conflict –not only by the German ‘guest’ forced on him but by his Resistance brother, who flees after murdering a Nazi, and leaves him with the burden of caring for his abandoned daughter. The French hosts embark on a campaign of silence against their guest – almost accidental at first, but hardening into their own, quiet rebellion, so the unnamed Older Man only speaks to us. His is a wry commentary on war and family – bemused by the turns his life has taken, not quite able to cope with the new responsibilities he has been left with, he, too, is a decent man who has been cast adrift by circumstance. The contrast between his dialogue – private, internal – and the public utterances of Werner is cleverly played, particularly when the two overlap, and the sense of the widening chasm between them, even as the Man comes to understand his guest more, smartly suggests the alienation of war, the fundamental differences between their two philosophies.
Where the play falls down is in its portrayal of the third plane of this curious triangle. For much of the production, Simona Bitmate’s Young Woman does not speak: she is opaque both to her uncle, who feels driven to occasionally slapping her in frustration, and to the German who clearly begins to become attached to her. Bitmate gives an impressively physical performance of a young woman in turmoil (one scene where Werner’s idealised fantasy of her is played against the bitter, resentful reality is particularly clever) but the play suffers for her silence, feeling unbalanced by her lack of solidity compared to the men around her.
The intimate atmosphere of the smaller of the Trafalgar Studios ramps up the claustrophobic nature of their living arrangements, and Weigh’s text is both poignant and surprisingly witty, though occasionally heavy handed: a tale of sudden viciousness from a former girlfriend may introduce the play’s overriding theme – the ‘despicable lie of … kindness’ – but is unconvincing. Werner’s final unravelling in Paris, when the horror of one man’s humiliation hits home more than the capitulation of a country, is powerfully done, but the enigmatic denouement is a little unsatisfying (has the girl come to care for him? Would any soldier, no matter how disgusted at his fellow Nazis, really rush to certain death at the Russian Front?). In depriving the most vulnerable of their voice, the play ultimately falls short of its own ideals – but it remains a powerful reminder that even well-meaning oppression is oppression, and the battle for ‘hearts and minds’ is the fiercest fight of all.