Large Print Theatre
Jack Studio Theatre
Silence is an early work by Moira Buffini, whose subsequent output includes Olivier–nominated Dinner and Welcome to Thebes for the stage and the screenplays of Tamara Drewe and Jane Eyre for the movies.
Set in the Dark Ages, Silence is a darkly comic look at power. In a period when women were vassals of their men folk and expected to display obedience and subservience, strong–willed and outspoken Ymma, a princess from Normandy and daughter of a saint, is banished to Saxon England by her brother and finds herself at the whim of the petulant and weak Etheldred Rex, who hides from reality in the comfort of his bed.
By royal decree, Ymma is required to marry Silence, the fourteen–year-old leader of the Viking population which has settled in the north and with whom there is an uneasy peace. When in private she discovers the Viking leader is something other than expected, they see that there may be some advantage to keeping quiet about the unusual arrangement.
In constant fear of attack, Ymma and her young husband take the long and arduous journey northwards to Silence's Cumbrian territory by cart. They travel under the protection of the King's Man, the menacing Eadric, and are accompanied only by Angés the lady's maid and Roger a young priest who wants to bring Christian salvation to the pagan north, starting with the conversion of Silence.
Back in Canterbury meanwhile King Ethelred has something of a conversion himself and takes off northwards by ship intending to slash and burn his way to Silence's castle, kill him and finally take Ymma for himself, which he does, though not without concession to her demands. As the King is advised, "Powerful women come with certain drawbacks".
In an epilogue, we learn that Ymma went on to be Queen of a Viking ruler again when the invasion of Canute deposed the Saxon, illustrating that history repeats and life goes on in face of the apocalyptic events anticipated by those living in the gods–fearing 11th Century or their parallel for those living at the turn of the millennium when this play was written.
Inured to tabloid-driven warnings of disaster, mocking of Mayan predictions of apocalypse and wise to contemporary misuse of power within churches, this element of the text is now the least successful and causes the second act to drag its feet, but the investigation of power is unlikely to ever be timed out.
Buffini's absorbing plot reveals power and powerlessness in many guises and shifts it elegantly between the characters as truth and lies, and silence, conjoin. Ultimately the intentionally cruel uses to which marauding Ethelred puts his power—"to kill is not enough, sometimes you have to torture first"—achieves less than that held by Ymma and Silence by their muteness and apparent compliance.
This thought–provoking and funny play is blessed in this production with a strong cast who seem to relish the richness of the language. Brigid Lohrey is exceptional as a tense, difficult but also understanding Ymma and Samantha Beart's young Silence is engaging from the first.
Daniel Brennan, memorably good in She Stoops to Conquer at The Jack, returns to play Ethelred, initially pathetically comic and then chilling and uncontrollably lustful for power, a mutation of Spamalot and evil which he easily pulls off.
Historian purists might want to stay away because Buffini displays an imaginative disregard for historical accuracy in her borrowings from the Dark Ages, but as a setting it works brilliantly as a call to think about who is the power behind the chainmail today.
Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti