How do you explain persistent sexual abuse and physical violence? How do you explain your own conspiracy of silence over many years? How do you live with the continuing presence of the perpetrator, now dead, and whom you have shot, twice, to make sure he doesn’t get up again? And how do you begin to recover from such experiences? These are the questions posed in Shelagh Stephenson’s harrowing psycho-drama.
Since the play was first performed on radio in 1996, and on stage in 2000, sexual abuse has become a much more widespread dramatic subject, and inevitably it doesn’t have the same shock value. But Five Kinds of Silence (or Kind of Silence, as the programme appears to have it) is still a very potent analysis of a family driven to murder by years of abuse at the hands of a sadistic bully of a husband and father, Billy, played with terrifying ferocity by Zach Lee.
Its roots in radio are very apparent in its short, interconnecting scenes, jumping back and forth in time, as the characters deliver contrasting soliloquies. We learn in the first few moments that Billy is dead, so there is no narrative drive to an unknown climax: instead there is a series of clinical pieces of exposition: it’s an unrelentingly grim experience, but one which retains a sense of hope in the human spirit. Director Chris Loveless gets the balance just right.
Billy’s epilepsy is a major factor – he is shot whilst in a writhing fit - but it is unclear how this relates to his treatment of his family. Is it intended as some kind of bizarre excuse, when he describes his head as fizzing and exploding, so he can “smell the colours of his brain”, or is it a manifestation of an inner turmoil to which he never admits? Perhaps there are no real answers to this, or to why people like Billy behave as they do. However, Stephenson clearly goes along with the now familiar theory that abusive behaviour often stems from the abuser’s suffering similar treatment when young, and that the pattern repeats itself.
Billy has a gun which he is in the habit of firing off indoors to terrify and control his wife and two daughters, but would nobody else ever have heard these gunshots? The women even have to ring the police themselves after they’ve shot him. They seem to live in a world where no one else exists – and whilst that may be a useful dramatic point, it strains credulity.
Despite these quibbles there are some fine moments, such as when one daughter describes how she wants “to make everything better” for her father, and how his touching her is what she wants, how she actually enjoys it, but then as soon as it’s over, she is physically sick. This is beautifully done by Olivia Dennis, and the performances by Tessa Wood as the mother and Violet Ryder as the other daughter are equally strong.