Mercury Theatre Colchester, Wiltshire Creative and Unity Theatre Liverpool
It's intriguing, isn't it, the idea of a play called Silence? I mean, you almost expect it to be mimed, at the very least. But a play without dialogue? Not something you often, if ever, come across, surely.
No. Considering the subject and the fact that we've been focusing so much on war the last week or so, I think we can assume that the silence refers more to that other dialogue, the unspoken one that the characters have with themselves, the one that is all the more effective for stirring individual memories and demanding such an emotional input from the audience. And isn't it the case that the older you happen to be, the more deeply you will be stirred.
It's a simple set, three screens behind three chairs, and just three characters, all closely related though with greatly different experiences of life.
They are three women, closely related. They all have Polish connections. The character of Maria the grandmother, played by Tina Gray, is based on Nicola Werenowska's own mother-in-law who, when in 1939 Poland was invaded successively by Germany from the west and then Stalinist Russia from the east, was sent to a labour camp in Siberia where she and her toddler daughter were starved, cruelly overworked, enduring temperatures well below freezing, and where, unsurprisingly, most of them died, including Maria's new-born son Victor. He has no marked grave. He was buried quickly and unceremoniously in the snow, with hundreds of others.
She still grieves daily for his loss.
Now she is old, living in London. She has regular contact with her daughter, Ewa (Kate Spiro) with whom she can converse in Polish, and Anna (Maria Louis), Ewa's daughter and her granddaughter. In contrast to the other two she has no experience of living in Poland and it comes as rather a surprise that, at her mother's birthday party, she announces her intention to travel to Poland to discover something of her missed heritage, moves there and stays for a surprisingly long time. It is Ewa's reactions and comments that answer our questions.
Anna, of course, is the one member of the family who can be identified as being closest to the accepted British character. Her ironic sense of humour, for instance, is recognisably British and serves to help lift the narrative away from the terrible sadness in which it would otherwise be lost. And it is Anna who provides—by that significant addition to the set in the final, very moving scene—a reason for them all, particularly Maria, to believe in the future.
A revealing and heart-warming play then that deserved its enthusiastic reception last night in the Salberg in Salisbury.
And if, like me, you were largely unaware of the 1.7 million Poles deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan, of whom barely a third survived, then this telling of at least part of their story is a shocking revelation that should be, and now perhaps will be in future, rather more widely known.
Reviewer: Anne Hill