Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Silence of the Sea - review

Written by: Jessica Lorimer (@JessLorimer3)

Trafalgar Studios, London

‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter’ (Martin Luther King Jr.) Normally, I hate to disagree with Martin Luther King Jr, but unfortunately silence was the only form of resistance left to an old peasant man and his niece in The Silence of the Sea. Based in occupied France in WW2 an old man and his niece have a Nazi officer billeted to their house and with no form of physical resistance available, the pair use silence as their weapon against the invasion of the Germans into their country and their home.

Photo: Simon Kane
A seemingly stereotypical Nazi soldier, Werner (Leo Bill) enters the pair’s lives with a familiar moustache, smart bow and a click of his shoes second only to Dorothy’s in its precision. It’s only when he begins to speak, almost compulsively, that he appears to be a fairly ordinary – if slightly, oddly, idealistic – young man in an unfortunate situation. His eagerness to show his enthusiasm for France is quite endearing and puts the viewer in the awkward position of empathising with a man whose job is to rid the world of any human that doesn’t fit in with the Aryan ‘Ideal’.  There is a stark contrast however, between his love for France with its ‘sweet towns [and] the elegance of your shops!’ and the matter of fact, darkly comic way that he describes his excitement over seeing the sea. ‘Now normally I wouldn’t have been able to see it, but a tank gives you that extra height doesn’t it?’ Cue nervous laughter from the audience...

Photo: Simon Kane
In fact, it is Werner’s puppy-like enthusiasm for everything that further encourages audience empathy. He is a constant reminder of the idealism of youth, believing totally in his cause and misunderstanding the wider political plans that have already been laid. Werner believes that the Nazis are going to assist France and that the only return that Germany would ask for would be peace. It is not until Werner sees a childhood friend psychologically torturing a Parisian waiter that he realises that the German presence in France cannot bring peace. It is heartbreaking to watch his forced transition from optimistic youngster to a man weighed down by the consequences of war.

The Old Man (Finbar Lynch) and the Young Woman (Simone Bitmaté), perhaps rightly, have no such sympathy, as their already disturbed lives are further disrupted by the arrival of this Nazi. After the Old Man’s brother kills a foreign soldier, his niece and her (invisible) piano arrive in his cottage. Despite their strained relationship, hating the soldier gives them something in common, and their relationship slowly progresses to mutual respect. Lynch puts in a solid performance as the Old Man, his monologues to the audience are energetic, if slightly lengthy, and his confiding nature allows the audience to see his own struggle to make sense of the effects of war on both himself and the Young Woman, but also on Werner.

Photo: Simon Kane
Bitmaté also gives a good performance, her timing is impeccable and the playing of her invisible piano brings an ethereal, dreamlike quality to the play. Her ability to convey frustration, anger and sadness through silence is skilful and unusual in a time where ‘all singing, all dancing’ shows are the norm. When she finally does speak, it sparks the audiences’ realisation that for her, life will never be the same.

The obvious star however is Leo Bill whose portrayal of Werner is comic, poignant and downright heartbreaking as he leaves for the ‘Russian Front’ on the discovery that the war is not for the greater good after all.

Overall, it’s an incredible piece. The intimate setting of the 100-seat studio unites the characters and the audience, and the well written, and darkly amusing script saves an otherwise, depressing tale. Indeed, the only things to watch out for were the frustrating moments when actors faced the back wall, making it difficult to hear. All in all, I went home knowing that in terms of set, staging and dramatisation, The Silence of the Sea had been a success. Emotionally, I felt wrung out – proof that silence speaks volumes.

This production runs until 2nd February 2013.
@DonmarWarehouse @TrafStudios

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