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Silence (Keswick)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Moira Buffini’s Silence, set in ‘Dark Ages England’ beset by Viking raids some fifty years prior to the Norman conquest, is a thoughtful and entertaining play about troubled times. The devout are bothered by what’s going on beneath their cassocks; rulers vacillate between neurotic incapacity and homicidal mania; bodyguards turn on their charges; and women have little chance of survival on their own.

The play follows the fortune of Ymma, daughter of a saint. Luckily, Ymma’s prospective husband, the ‘Lord’ Silence, turns out to be a girl, and the two make a pact to keep this from the world and keep each other safe. Unluckily, Ymma inspires admiration which turns into obsession in king Ethelred, and later in Eadric, the man he details to deliver her safely to the north.

For Buffini, it is men who put the ‘Dark’ into ‘Dark Ages’, as Ethelred ends up a psychopathic and genocidal killer and Eadric, increasingly unstable, seeks to get Silence out of the way. Though it is as gripping as any thriller, the play is also a romantic comedy, with a full-on happy ending - with a twist.

Ymma is the key role, a strong woman, the obsessive pursuit of whom by two men drives the plot. Sarah Groarke brings strength and simplicity to her fascinating proto-feminist heroine, as well as a good line in acerbic put-downs. Vanessa Johnson’s Lord Silence doesn’t fully convince as a boy, and is much more assured later in the play in the interesting emotional triangle as s/he falls for Eadric, who in turn has fallen for his/her ‘wife’ Ymma.

Andrew Grose’s taciturn warrior Eadric is rather under wraps in the court, but once on the road brings a level of dark physical menace to the second half. Christopher Webster gives a fine performance as Ethelred, subtly indicating his journey from ‘unready’ king to fully-functioning psychopath. James Hogg and Rebecca Elliott provide good, mostly comic, support as the frustrated lovers Roger and Agnes.

Elizabeth Wright’s uncluttered multi-level set economically suggested an evocative medieval setting whilst not getting in the way of the central ‘journey’ act. Matt Hall’s atmospheric sound design and Jo Dawson’s lighting anchor scenes firmly in barrow, cloister or open road, making a major contribution to the play’s easy switching between light comedy and mythic intensity.

Silence is a witty and thought-provoking play, somewhere between screwball comedy and study in homicidal male obsession, lightly brought to life by director Stefan Escreet, who coaxes some final ensemble playing out of his young cast.

- Stephen Longstaffe


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