FringeReview UK 2018
James Hiller’s clearly convinced Mike Bartlett’s first play from 2005 really is for the theatre, and not the radio where it was first aired and won an award. Amy Cook’s stark design of a white translucent floor lit up by squares underneath it – Zoe Spurr’s lighting is not just busy but dazzlingly various throughout – complements a recessed alcove, with an upright piano and two stools. There’s much activity on downstage light-chess squares to Simon Slater’s music.
’A radio play for the stage’ Mike Bartlett concludes of his first stage work from 2005, written before he was twenty-five. Not Talking was first produced as an award-winning radio drama shortly after, on Radio 3 in March 2006. There’s a witty (if anachronistic, being 1939) reference to the Third Programme Bartlett might have slipped in homage. So is it theatre?
James Hiller’s clearly convinced, and this seventy-five minute four-hander spanning generations holds a tautness and agency heralding a mature voice, if not some of the savage boxing-into concentric squares of works like Bull and Contractions, let alone King Charles III. Other plays like Earthquakes in London and more subtly last year’s Albion, show the trip-wires people create for themselves, rather than the system, or in the case of Earthquakes, ways to jump out.
Not Talking isn’t quite like that, and it’s as refreshing as his recent willingness to drop his hallmark Greek tragic method. You can see the incipient dramatist of systemic abuse, as in Contractions and Bull, people crushed by it. Here there’s agency too, as well as a touching tribute in the older man James to his conscientious objector grandfather.
Defibrillator and James Hillier have form in this kind of intensive inscape – A Lie of the Mind at Southwark Playhouse last year revitalised a Sam Shepard play that had seemed dated.
Bartlett’s 2005 play seems in contrast prescient, nudging us on the one hand towards the abuse and 1990s army recruit ‘suicides’ in Deep Cut and elsewhere, still unanswered. And the still-raw invasion of Iraq. Amy Cook’s stark design of a white translucent floor lit up by squares underneath it – Zoe Spurr’s lighting is not just busy but dazzlingly various throughout – complements a recessed alcove, a seeming sanctuary with an upright piano and two stools, the home of an elderly couple in their eighties. They occupy upstage while a male and female army recruit energetically invade the territory of light-chess squares to Simon Slater’s music. There’s a Chopin connection on that upright.
Two unconnected double narratives, three generations apart. initially there’s two sides to each one, then James breaks that separation. They’re crucially all doing what the title announces. Each character narrates to the audience, no matter how fraught, and Hiller’s job (and that of Jack Murphy’s movement direction) is to animate what seems here a cut-up of the kind of Faith Healer narratives.
David Horovitch’s eloquent gentle James stands near to Kika Markham’s Lucy. He begins narrating their courtship and marriage just before the war. ‘She was beautiful’ he says admiringly. After relating a traumatically late miscarriage which crushes sexual intimacy (we understand) the pain begins to tear their idyll, but the war rends it. It’s almost the quietest, saddest moment in the play. ‘On the hospital bed we just sat side by side. not touching. Just looking away together.’ ‘Not talking. Just looking into the distance’ Lucy adds. It’s a language purged, clipped, factual, directive. Bartlett’s first statement of British non-communication, and at its most distilled.
Markham invests her role with quiet dignity, so you’re not quite able to condemn her not-quite-condemning silence about James, not talking to him – yet he clearly realizes he’s lost her even more than after the miscarriage. But her silent disapproval of his pacifist stance turns to jealousy when she realizes that there’s someone else; a young woman. Susan begins by mutely supporting James in his pacifism down at the Labour Exchange and then takes him for tea. There’s an affair; consequences are stifled as Susan suddenly withdraws soon after Lucy guesses, whilst James is driving ambulances in Finland.
By this time Bartlett intercuts the narratives. Seventy years younger Mark and Amanda (Lawrence Walker and Gemma Lawrence) inhabit the explosive world of barracks and disco-beat. Mark’s military attitude syncopates with James. Mark’s doing it for mum. Walker’s cavorting whoops about his hard-edged way with military hardware bespeaks someone who alter ‘All I did was to follow orders, do as I’m told. That’s my job.’ They’re attracted. Amanda thinks Mark ‘endearing’ but he tells us: ‘She was fit’ and reports others’ graphic approval.
They’re menaced by some jealous soldiers, Amanda returning separately is raped. ‘If I don’t want to tell anyone. It’s up to me, right?’ All those whom she might appeal to are in on it or complicit. Amanda’s left in little doubt that even her complicit silence mightn’t protect her. As she’s warned by a spitting sergeant: ‘What happens to soldiers who don’t stay in line?… They get shot. We’ve had deaths here. Suicides…’ Lawrence is profoundly affecting and mutely eloquent.
Mark who saw some girl being molested is told to say nothing; he wants to be supportive but doesn’t talk to Amanda, or speak out. Amanda plays Chopin on a barracks piano from a score she was given by Mark’s mother.
James’s decision to break silence after a discovery profoundly impacts on everyone, including one act of physical courage. Bartlett’s denouement is as clever and compassionate as James’ defiant conclusions. ‘if a country pays its children to train as killers, it must expect a little trouble. Maybe you would call it collateral damage.’
It’s Horovitch’s performance as a searching conscience-led man making life-changing discoveries that impresses most, but Markham’s slow unpeeling, Lawrence’s numbed traversal finally melting and walker’s chipped-off chipper young soldier denying the emotional depth his mother and Amanda see in him marks another frozen vulnerability.
The gains here – in physical sunken silences, in sudden reachings-out – outweigh the close-up nuance of voices. and that, in Arcola’s Studio 1, is ever-present. It’s a superb, affirmative debut play, up there with Bartlett’s finest, free from occasional mannerisms and prophetic of later work.