Theatre by the Lake, Keswick
Moira Buffini's Silence takes us back a thousand years to the English 'Dark Ages' and the reign of King Ethelred, set between Canterbury and Cumbria.
Ethelred's people are suffering from Viking attacks, but Ethelred's mental health appears to be deteriorating swiftly as he is afraid to leave his bed, ruling England by sending orders via his faithful manservant Eadric. Ymma of Normandy, whose mother is said to be a saint, has been sent to England by her brother to be punished by Ethelred, which he does by forcing her to marry 14-year-old Lord Silence of Cumbria.
The innocent young Silence is anxious about his performance on his wedding night and consults Roger the priest who is trying to persuade him to leave behind his Viking gods and turn to Christianity, but Roger is too embarrassed to be of much help. After the wedding when they are alone for the first time, Ymma discovers the reason for Silence's anxiety (which is obvious from the start to the audience, even if not to Silence, but as it isn't given away in the publicity I'll not give it away here) and forms a very close bond with him.
When they prepare to leave for Silence's castle, Ethelred has plucked up the courage to leave his bedroom and decided that he must marry Ymma himself, and so pursues the couple back up to Cumbria, devastating a few villages on the way, in order to kill Silence and take his bride for himself.
While this all sounds quite serious and even horrific, his play is really a comedy at heart albeit with some serious situations. There are some extremely funny scenes amongst the reports of terrible things happening offstage, but it never strays beyond the plausible and so it is easy to get completely absorbed by the story and the superbly-drawn characters. There is some beautiful writing in this script, which is realised extremely well in director Stefan Escreet's production.
There are great performances all round in this very strong cast. In the title role, Vanessa Johnson gives a perfectly-believable performance as someone who is barely a teenager yet is both experienced in ruling over his warrior people and yet so inexperienced in more down-to-earth matters that he makes a rather large mistake about himself; she gets all of the humour and pathos out of the role without overplaying it. Another great performance that combines perfectly-controlled humour with a great, loveable warmth is James Hogg's portrayal of Roger the Priest, whose facial expressions when he is being told anything remotely embarrassing are hilarious.
Christopher Webster creates an Ethelred who is selfish and brutal and with whom it is difficult to sympathise at any point, which is perfect for the story as it is written. Sarah Groarke's Ymma is bitter and angry for much of the time and often takes out her anger on the wrong people, but she also shows a softer side with Silence. It is difficult not to sympathise with her long-suffering maid Agnes, played by Rebecca Elliot, although she gives as good as she gets and at the end has her own reward. Andrew Grose is the bearlike Eadric with a limited vocabulary but great physical power.
This is a wonderful piece of theatre, enjoyable from beginning to end with an intriguing and perhaps not always happy storyline but with lots of very well written and performed comedy and a good comedy ending.
Running to 6 November
Reviewer: David Chadderton