“You must risk. Risk being wrong”
The term ‘elliptical triptych’ strikes fear into my heart – memories of Wastwater still make me shudder – but I hadn’t quite made the connection that this was the area where Robert Holman’s Making Noise Quietly lay until the likes of David Eldridge and Simon Stephens recently started proclaiming his major, if unsung, influence on their work. And as the second entry in Josie Rourke’s debut season at the Donmar Warehouse, there’s something of a statement of intent in her programming of this revival this trio of small plays directed by Peter Gill.
Quite what that statement is though, I am unsure. Everything about this production from the three stories presented here and the connection between the three, through Paul Wills’ minimalist green set, to the acting, is understated to the point where barely a ripple of consequence seemed apparent to me. The first tale was my favourite and not just because both guys ended up naked, honest P-O-V…;-) – a 1944 countryside encounter between a fey young writer and a strapping conscientious objector becomes charged with curiosity and sexuality as the former flirts outrageously with the latter and both men lay themselves bare with a moving level of introspection. Both men are perfectly cast here, Matthew Tennyson could have walked out of 1940s central casting and Jordan Dawes’ open handsomeness fits perfectly as this pair create a wonderful sense of chemistry.
The second play is another two-hander, though rather shorter. John Hollingworth’s career Naval officer Geoffrey arrives at a woman’s home to inform her of her estranged son’s death in the Falklands conflict. Susan Brown’s Mrs Appleton gives a performance of extraordinary intensity, practically a monologue of her reaction to the news and her recollections of her relationship, or lack thereof, with her son. The occasional revelation of what has happened in the interceding 5 years provokes a little interest, but there’s so little dynamism about the piece, so little additional character work to make anything of Geoffrey, that its very static nature left me disappointed and disengaged.
The third piece is undoubtedly more substantial – Holocaust survivor Helene spends her time painting in the Black Forest and is stumbling upon by severely autistic Sam and his troubled soldier of a step-dad Alan. All angry at the world and the pain it has inflicted on them, they react in different ways: Sam can’t speak and communicates through screams, writing on his arm and wetting the bed; Alan’s frustration at being left by his wife and lumbered with her child manifests itself in excessive swearing; and Helene’s ongoing struggle to deal with the memory of the concentration camp that robbed her of her family has resulted in a behavioural quirkiness. As they try to help each other as best they know, we see how the damage has cut deep.
But where I was expecting a cumulative gathering of impact, perhaps of meaning as connections between the pieces revealed themselves, I ended up none the wiser. So much of the work revels in its abstractness and the looseness of the gathering of its strands and it ultimately felt rather insubstantial, and the thematic continuity I craved just didn’t happen for me. On reflection, I suppose one can consider everyone to have somehow been a victim of war and the plays look at how they have or haven’t coped. But it seems a tenuous link in reality, and certainly hadn’t crossed my mind (or that of the people I chatted to around me) whilst in the theatre, and I doubt any aspect of this production will continue to linger in the mind either.