Monday, 21 January 2013

Theatre Review: The Silence of the Sea (Trafalgar Studios)

France, the early 1940s. A German officer, Werner (Leo Bill), is billeted at the coastal home of a man (Finbar Lynch) and his pianist niece (Simona Bitmaté). The latter resist the German’s presence with the only weapon that they have at their disposal: total silence. While respecting their refusal to address the hated invader, the officer, in turn, meets their silence with words: a series of monologues in which he recalls his experiences both before and during the war. Apparently ignored, his discourse actually ends up impacting deeply upon both the man and the girl over the months he spends in their presence.

That’s the premise of The Silence of the Sea, the classic novella published secretly in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1942 by Jean Bruller (under the pseudonym Vercors) and now skilfully adapted for the stage by Anthony Weigh. The material was made into an acclaimed - and New Wave-influencing - film by Jean-Pierre Melville in 1947; the movie employed voiceover to convey the Older Man’s thoughts and commentary. But, in Simon Evans’s fine, atmospheric production - in which only one of the three characters speaks to the others - the story proves equally effective and affecting as a theatre piece, its quiet, immersive impact accentuated by the intimacy of Trafalgar Studios 2.

Indeed, much of the power of The Silence of the Sea resides precisely in the way it uses a small space to gesture towards a larger picture.  Part of what became known as the "intellectual resistance" to the Nazi invasion of France, the piece explores the intricacies and sheer awkwardness of occupation for both occupier and occupied. Were the piece written now it's probable that the situation would be milked for more conventional soap operatics: an affair between Werner and the girl, for example; betrayal, discovery, revelation.  But Vercors takes no such predictable course. Rather, his story simply charts the small shifts in feeling and allegiance that occur in the household, slowly deepening and complicating the characters and their perceptions of one another. Expectations are usurped throughout, especially in the sympathetic presentation of Werner. No Nazi thug, he's revealed as a cultured man, a former composer and Francophile who loves the sound of the sea and can't quite believe in himself as a man of war.

Evans's confident, spare production keeps the proceedings low-key yet charged, with a standout sound design by Gregory Clarke that renders every creak and bang, every piano note telling and expressive. Weigh's writing creates indelible images too, from the Older Man's recollection of bringing his niece to the house for the first time to Werner's shattering final monologue which recounts his witnessing of – and participation in – the humiliation of a waiter in a Paris restaurant.     

What a terrific actor Leo Bill is. As Werner, he starts out eager and expostulating, expressing his belief in brotherhood between France and Germany. He ends in disillusion and (self-) disgust, his sense of the righteousness of his country's mission irrevocably shaken. It's an absolutely superb performance, full of feeling and nuance, and, by the end, very moving. He's well matched by Finbar Lynch as the Older Man, a bachelor who's only just getting used to his niece's presence in his house when the officer arrives. Lynch establishes a strong audience rapport from his first speech, his wry, watchful presence suggesting a latent desire to connect with the German.

Simona Bitmaté has the most challenging job of the three in many ways, having to convey her character's anger, frustration and growing fascination with Werner without recourse to words. Bitmaté manages this skilfully, yet can't quite overcome the sense that hers is an underwritten role: the piece would surely only have been richer for allowing the niece to speak her thoughts to the audience too (a short monologue at the very end seems too little too late). As it stands, the girl's feelings for Werner remain a tad too vague, with the result that the ending, which might have been wrenching, is merely poignant here.

The balance between ambiguity and revelation isn't perfectly achieved, then. But Evans' production resonates, nonetheless. It's an understated slow-burn that won't be to all tastes, but the intimate portrait of occupation and resistance that it offers is likely to linger long in the mind of the responsive viewer.

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