first night

Five Kinds of Silence

Helena Snider experiences a dark evening of theatre.

For a play about considerably dark themes such as incest and sexual abuse, Hetty Hodgson and Damson Young's production of Five Kinds of Silence is surprisingly watchable. Going in, I was somewhat sceptical—was this going to just be harrowing account of a tortured family, deliberately shocking, and produced for the sake of provocation and controversy? Well, the answer is no. What had the potential to be amateurish and over-exaggerated in tone is instead an insightful, slick, intriguing and deeply moving play.

The success of this feat can be attributed to a number of factors. Given the subject matter, the play would fail to work without incredibly strong performances. Since there were only five actors, all main parts, each carried considerable responsibility. George Ellis, who played Billy, was an especially striking presence onstage. His ability to move seamlessly from a sociopathic rapist-father to a damaged, insecure boy—and reconcile these two seemingly disparate elements of the same character—was the most remarkable element of the play.

Moreover, the genius decision to have Billy present at all points highlighted the extent of his control and power on the imaginations of Mary, Susan and Janet, even—and especially—after his death. All five characters remained onstage for the duration. Arguably this was a less effective choice in the case of the lawyer/psychiatrist/policeman character, all played charismatically by Olly Hill. Whilst Hill was perfectly capable of convincingly shifting between all three different roles, the choice to have his character onstage whilst delving into the childhood memories and romantic pasts of the family members seemed odd, given that the point of the play was that psychological trauma was not being effectively heard.

The lack of visual stimulation was another clever choice on the part of the directors. Indeed the minimalist set (consisting of a bed and some shelves) represented the domestic setting in which years of emotional manipulation occurred; that the stage was barren emphasised the spoiled emotional landscape produced by said abuse.

The play is watchable not because it glosses over or glamorises abuse—quite the contrary. In fact, it is relentless in its portrayal of a brutal and violent abuser. It is instead watchable because the horror of Billy’s character is balanced out by the quiet strength and solidarity of the female victims. The three female leads are so adept at inhabiting their roles that their pain is felt deeply by the audience. We empathise with them to such a degree that we feel by the end of the play that we too have lived their trauma. As Sarah Cameron’s character points out to her lawyer: “This could have happened to you too.”

Overall, this was a clever and exciting play, beautifully acted by a talented cast. It will push you out of your comfort zone, which is to be hopeful of a play which seeks to explain motivation behind persistent sexual abuse and physical violence. As a physical theatre piece it was hugely impressive, and it was disturbing yet funny.

25 February 2017

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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