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Shelagh Stephenson received critical acclaim for her last play The Memory of Water when it won an Olivier award for best comedy. In her impressive new play she returns to the ties that bind a family, but instead of love, it is abuse that holds them together. It is about the conspiracy of silence that surrounds a family where the man is terrorising his wife and both his daughters.
Five Kinds of Silence
Stephenson's prose is descriptive, original and highly lyrical. Most of the play is structured in the form of monologues in which the characters relate their story.
The play opens to the mournful sound of the cello, a window bathed in red light, with Billy (Tim Pigott-Smith) telling us in a northern accent about his own violent childhood. The light spreads to reveal a grey brick room, like a prison cell, with a bed and a table and chairs. Three red coats hang from pegs. Three women enter and one of them shoots the man lying in the bed. Then another takes the gun and shoots him again. The man sits up, says that they had killed him the first time and then goes on to narrate most of his story.
What follows is the arrest of all three women for the murder of the father and conversations with the police, the lawyers and the prison psychiatrist which send us backtracking over time to the childhood of their parents. A pattern emerges. We see a man who is physically abused by his own mother and then becomes a tyrant to his wife and daughters. Obsessive about tidiness (the vase should be three inches from the corner of the mantelpiece, not four, not two , but three inches) he metes out brutality. He also sexually abuses his own daughters from the age of thirteen. This controlling man invents obstacles for his family to fall at - he hits them because they butter his toast the wrong way, buttered it in the wrong direction. The daughters are in their mid thirties when, unable to tolerate their father any longer, they decide to kill him.
The fifth kind of silence of the title is that of the community -- the schools the girls went to, the neighbours who surely must have heard the beatings. How did the man keep his temper secret from his workmates? Stephenson examines why no one in the family asked for help and we see a kind of warped reasoning from the girls but the questions remains open. Our father did what he did because he loved us, because we were a family. At one point, all three women say together, "We don't want to talk about that."
The performances are faultless. This is a brave role for Tim Pigott-Smith. He succeeds at making us see Billy as obsessive, violent and repulsive. He must also makes us understand him as a child received violence when he needed affection.
Linda Bassett is excellent as Mary, the downtrodden, self mutilating mother, who was physically abused by her own father and left for long periods of time alone as a child after the death of her mother. Talking about Billy and her daughters, she says, "As long as he was hitting me, he wasn't hitting them".
Gina McKee and Lizzy McInnerney convince as "the girls" -- na´ve, innocent or maybe just not very clever. They show a childlike delight when they write to their mother praising the remand centre, saying how lovely it is because that is the truth. Anywhere away from the oppression of their father is a wonderful place. They often speak in unison. McKee's Susan is nervy, skinny, stiff shouldered and very open in a child like way. McInnerney's Janet has a wrenchingly sad expression.
High above the stylised set is a photographic, smoky backdrop of a northern industrial townscape at night. The cupboards reveal a military precision, systems, numbering, organisation, all dictated by a controlling and sick man. The lighting hits the set as linear stripes, shafts of light through the bars of a window, partially revealing. Barrington Pheloung's original music adds to a brooding atmosphere.
Director Ian Brown sometimes places Billy at a window, a door, to the side of the scene or high above the set so that he can overlook events after his death -- ever present and watching for the betrayal of his secret. The direction is as tight as a wire. Out of the Blue is a young production company run by Anna Waterhouse and Clare Lawrence who graduated from Cambridge in 1997 and based on this performance, certainly one to watch out for in future.
Editor's Note: For a review of the New York production of Stephenson's The Memory of Water
|FIVE KINDS OF SILENCE
Written by Shelagh Stephenson
Directed by Ian Brown
With: Tim Pigott-Smith, Linda Bassett, Gina McKee, Lizzy McInnerney, Gary Whitaker, Dione Inman
Design: Peter McKintosh
Lighting Design: Hugh Vanstone
Composer: Barrington Pheloung
Sound Design: Mic Pool
Running time: About an hour twenty minutes without an interval
Out of the Blue Productions at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith
Box Office: 020 8741 2311
Booking to 8th July 2000
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 2nd June 2000 performance at the Lyric Hammersmith, King Street, London W.6