Secretly published as a novella in 1942, Vercors' story examines an excruciating dilemma faced by both the occupier and the occupied.
In a time of conflict, a soldier is billeted to the home of an old man and his niece. Powerless to turn him away, they resist him with silence - a silence that becomes their most potent weapon.
Simon Evans’ production of Anthony Weigh’s new version stars Leo Bill as the soldier, Finbar Lynch as the old man and Simona Bitmate as the niece. It runs until 2 February.
Weigh’s adaptation… contains three perfectly measured and skilfully discharged performances… The model of these intersecting confessional speeches – and Werner moves interestingly away from his own political conviction – could almost be a Conor McPherson play. The play fiddles sensitively with ideas of nationhood, hospitality, invasion and betrayal, while the officer appears to be not exactly the obtuse monster we first meet. Bill manages these elisions with a wonderful lightness of touch, and his set-piece involving the humiliation of a waiter in a dining club is a corker. Played straight through at just over ninety-five minutes, the drama is a small-scale event with a big political reach, and the Donmar presentation… is as good as anything in town.
Playwright Anthony Weigh has come up with a clever, if dramatically problematic, stage version of Vercors’s classic 1942 novella… If this Donmar project is all about showing off the young directors to best advantage, Simon Evans fares very well. It’s a confident production of a tricky text, greatly aided by an accomplished palette of sound effects from Gregory Clarke. Impressively, the wordlessness of Young Woman (Simona Bitmaté), who is still silent at the 90-minute mark, becomes just as eloquent as speech. Bitmaté has a compelling quality of stillness… Lengthy monologues, not always the easiest thing to watch, are thus the order of the day. Sometimes you feel that the Young Woman — and indeed the sea — had the best idea.
The confrontation of speech with silence can be a potent theatrical weapon… Weigh's piece emerges as an unequivocal tribute to mute defiance. The other problem is purely technical: voiceover narration is perfectly natural in cinema, but on stage it seems rather clunky… Simon Evans does a good job in using sound and light to lend this rigorously austere piece tonal variety. The excellent Leo Bill plays Werner like a starry-eyed public schoolboy slowly awakening to the horrors of war. Finbar Lynch's innate Irishness lends the old peasant's resistance to occupation an extra political resonance, and Simona Bitmaté as the piano-loving niece touchingly hints at a silent affinity with the musical Werner. But, however decently done, it still feels like a story that cries out for the probing realism of the camera.
Bill proves to be extraordinarily moving, though, in the role – presenting the officer as a sort of eager, faintly eccentric and trusting toff who responds to the dour hostility with unfailing graciousness and who fills the awkward silences with gabbling rhapsodies about French culture or unguarded personal revelations. Simona Bitmate's pained, sullenly defiant niece tries to avoid eye-contact with him as she sits implacably sewing and on one occasion… she has to race outside in the rain to retch… An anguished, strangled cry of “I...” is involuntarily torn from the niece… and hangs in the air when the officer takes his leave of them for a suicidal posting on the Eastern Front. You're acutely aware that it's the first sound that he has heard in this house that is also a word.
The French characters’ vow of silence is an expression of passive resistance. It comes across as more of a literary device than a dramatic one… For all the exquisiteness of the staging you have time to reflect that a line such as “the diabolical lie of her kindness” is a very written kind of sentiment. The production is poetical, torpid… Bill is an actor who impresses in everything he’s in, most recently Posh in the West End, and he’s electrifying here. Talking crisply, rhythmically, accurately, he gives the lie to Werner’s poise, to his flatulent articulacy, to his presumptuousness. It’s the punchline the story has been building towards and Bill delivers it with verve and empathy. These 90 minutes betray their literary roots, but they linger in the memory too.
The soldier, Werner, talks compulsively, his utterances sputtering like machine-gun fire into the softness of their mute resistance: he tells his reluctant hosts that we all invent and misconceive one another, so dialogue is never really communication anyway…Actually, the word he uses is 'annihilate': an evocative verb for a Nazi to deploy, in a play where words and silences, forced to share inadequate space, reverberate and damage… director Simon Evans deals deftly with the layered problems of a novella …that, converted to theatre… asks very different things of each of the trio of actors… Leo Bill, as voluble, miserable Werner, is particularly good, but Simona Bitmaté adeptly conveys the mute fury of a girl silenced as a female and as a pianist, and Finbar Lynch, as her uncle, has a sly, suggestive smile.