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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Silence of the Sea
Trafalgar Studios  January-February 2013

Both set and written during the Nazi occupation of France, ‘The Silence of the Sea’ was published by ‘Vercors’, pseudonym of playwright Jean Bruller, through the French resistance’s undercover printing presses. It now appears in a new translation by Anthony Weigh, the third instalment of the Donmar Warehouse’s trilogy of productions at Trafalgar Studios.

Like its predecessors, ‘The Silence of the Sea’ is the recent translation of an influential European play, as well as a three-hander for two men and a woman – but it is the season’s first in which the three characters are not embroiled in some kind of love triangle.

What we are shown instead is how a small French family copes with the arrival of German soldiers into their seaside town and then their home, when a young officer, Werner (Leo Bill), is billeted in their spare room. 

The silence that pervades this production is so intense that it is some minutes before anybody speaks at all. At last, setting the trend that will last the whole of the play's brief ninety minutes, it is Werner, nervous and effusive, who breaks the silence. But unbeknownst to Werner, the commitment he makes to attempting conversation is a far graver one than he realises in this first instance - because the Older Man (Finbar Lynch) and his niece, the Young Woman (newcomer Simona Bitmaté), have made a decision that they will never respond to Werner. 

The two of them do not speak to him, do not even speak in front of him, so that he is left completely isolated not only by his position –an interloper in their home, attempting to behave like a guest – but by their insurmountable wall of silence.

As you would expect from his playing the only character who is willing to talk, Leo Bill has a huge number of lines, but he is given a break occasionally by Vercors’s decision to have the Older Man address the audience directly. 

The Young Woman, however, is constantly, gallingly silent, and Bitmaté turns in a quite remarkable performance in spite of or possibly because of this. It has been said that true acting is all about reacting, and if that is the case, Bitmaté will go very far indeed – her expressive eyes, her posture and her physicality speak volumes without her ever needing to say a word.

Nonetheless, it is Leo Bill’s show from start to finish. Recognisable from Laura Wade’s ‘Posh’, but far more likeable here, his Werner has a recognisably upper-class-awkward way of rattling on, talking himself into silence. He clearly has no place in the army and has been brought here by a kind of youthful ignorance: at home, he is a composer; he rhapsodises about the sea and the countryside; he sees no reason why he cannot get along with his hosts - Werner views himself a guest, even though to them his presence is an invasion.

Between Bill’s performance and the subtlety of the writing, something very clever is done with Werner. We judge the play’s portrayal of simple human cruelty, the family’s use of silence as a weapon, against the larger cruelties of the Nazis. 

Werner seems so irrelevant to the war, an innocent in an almost childlike way, that even though their treatment of him is utterly understandable, it also feels pointlessly mean. It achieves nothing and merely adds to the harshness of a harsh world.

Ironically for a play about silence, Anthony Weigh’s decorous speeches sometimes get lost in themselves, but this is the smallest of complaints against a play that is an extremely interesting comment on the major and minor brutalities of which humanity is capable.

The Silence of the Sea’ marks the end of a successful collaboration between two interesting and accomplished London theatres – one can only hope that its success is as an encouragement to others.

Lauren Mooney

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Review - Silence of the Sea - Trafalgar Studios 2013  
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