Silence (Donmar Warehouse)

Posted: September 7, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Manuel Harlan

Author: Kavita Puri

Writers: Sonali Bhattacharyya, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Ishy Din, and Alexandra Wood

Director: Abdul Shayek

⭐️⭐️

It is now 75 years since the partitioning of the Indian sub-continent as part of the process of gaining independence from the British Empire. A seemingly arbitrary line was drawn on a map to divide predominantly Hindu India in the south and predominantly Muslim West Pakistan and East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) in the north. 

Silence, premiering at the Donmar Warehouse prior to transferring to London’s Tara Theatre, is a 100-minute play based on Kavita Puri’s archive of interviews with some of those who experienced the transition and are still living in the United Kingdom. Working with four writers (Sonali Bhattacharyya, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Ishy Din and Alexandra Wood), Puri has dramatised transcripts of those interviews for the stage, putting history into the context of modern British life.

The play is given a dramatic structure through the character of Mina (Nimmi Harasgama), who we take to be based upon Puri herself. Her father is ailing and she urges him to break his silence about the events of 1947. When he refuses, Mina’s determination to hear the testimonies of other survivors grows. Her aim is to provide a record from a generation that has remained largely silent, but is now dying out, so that succeeding generations of British South Asians can gain a clearer understanding of the traumas suffered by their forebears. Perhaps a secondary aim could be to prick the collective conscience of the former Imperial power. 

Worthy as Puri’s intentions undoubtedly are, turning the testimonies into verbatim theatre presents challenges which proves difficult to overcome. Six actors, playing multiple roles, tell the stories. The actors are: Renu Brindle, Sujaya Dasgupta, Bhasker Patel, Jay Saighal, Rehan Sheikh and Martin Turner.

They tell us of neighbours who are friends in the morning trying to kill each other in the afternoon, as a toxic combination of politics and religion wreaks mayhem. We hear of Hindus fleeing south of the dividing line to avoid persecution and Muslims fleeing north for the same reason. We hear of genocide without a single perpetrator, rape, mutilation and human suffering on a scale that is almost impossible to  comprehend.

Director Abdul Shayek strives to add dramatic tension and texture to the stories, but is thwarted by the limitations of verbatim theatre. A group of excellent actors struggles to create three-dimensional characters when the format offers little more than narration to work with. 

What we hear is truly shocking, but key elements of human drama are missing and the accounts heard are never as moving as we feel they should be. As one horror story follows another, repetition begins to drain the drama of its power, resulting in the intended climax, when Mina’s father eventually opens out, becoming the biggest disappointment of all.

Performance date: 6 September 2022

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