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Mike Bartlett is a master of confrontation. Think of the Machiavellian scheming of Simon and Gemma Foster; the bickering royals in King Charles III; the savage workplace bullying of Bull; and the petty emotional manipulation of Cock. He is a master of (mostly very catty) dialogue, but his first play is about how silence is far more damaging than straight-up aggression. Not talking in this play results in lost families, poisoned romances and slow emotional deterioration.
Elderly couple James (David Horovitch) and Lucy (Kika Markham) lost a baby when they were young. Their marriage has never been the same since, and things only get worse when James becomes a conscientious objector during the Second World War, a choice which Lucy silently condemns. Meanwhile in the present day, Mark (Lawrence Walker) and Amanda (Gemma Lawrence) are new to the army. Their budding romance is cut short when Amanda suffers an act of unspeakable brutality at the hands of a sergeant. Mark saw what happened, but has been ordered by his superiors to keep his mouth shut or face the consequences. The story unfolds via four interlaced monologues – a similar technique to Chris Thorpe’s underappreciated 2017 play Victory Condition.
Amazingly this is the first time Not Talking has been performed professionally. Bartlett faced multiple rejections from theatres back in 2005 when he completed the piece, eventually finding a home for his formally complex meditation on communication and cowardice on BBC Radio 3. He was none too happy about this, telling The Stage in a recent article: “What’s really important in this play is what the other character is doing while one is speaking. The other actor is crucial.” He persuaded Methuen to put it in the first volume of his collected plays in 2011, hoping that someone would stumble across it. The director of this performance, James Hillier, did just that – so here we are at the Arcola 13 years after Not Talking was first broadcast.
Bartlett was right of course. Having all of the characters onstage simultaneously is imperative. In a pivotal scene when Amanda opens up about being raped, it’s extremely telling that Lucy is filled with empathy while James awkwardly hangs his head and Mark turns his back to her. Having the characters visibly occupying the same space yet never interacting with each other hammers home the play’s themes. Silence may be easy, but it’s also the coward’s path.
There is something brash and youthful about the writing. The parallels between the two narratives are bold, one could say a little too neat. James refuses to fight to stop Nazism engulfing Europe; Mark is eager to fight in Iraq over fictional weapons of mass destruction. At the tribunal determining whether James qualifies as a conscientious objector, the judge asks if he would intervene if his sister was being raped by a Nazi; Mark fatefully does not intervene when Amanda is raped. Who is the real coward?
On paper, Mark is one of the more interesting characters. In his opening scene, Amanda describes him as “innocent” and having “this way with words”. Interlaced with Amanda’s monologue, Mark describes her as “sugar honey” and “fit”, adding “nice tits, Gary said”. Clearly there is a disconnect between how Amanda sees Mark and how Mark sees himself. As an audience we’re tempted to see Mark’s hyper-masculinity as an act. The other squaddies refer to him as “gay boy” and he goes to war “so that Mum back home says well done”. You get the sense his presentation as “one of the boys” is partly a defence mechanism.
Bartlett uses the monologue form to explore the stories we tell ourselves to cement an identity which isn’t really our own. He then juxtaposes this with other characters’ stories to show that the way we see ourselves is not always who we really are. In performance, however, Walker does not command our attention as much as the other three actors. He’s completely believable, but the conflict between who Mark is and who he wants to be is perhaps not explored as thoroughly as it could be.
Horovitch, however, brought new depths to James. There is a danger of the historical narrative having less urgency than the modern-day tale of abuse in the army barracks, but Horovitch and Markham reminded us that the stakes are just as high. Horovitch had a homely, Jim Broadbent-like demeanour. He could clearly be a grandparent whose rambling anecdotes you profess to be bored by, but secretly adore. In the opening scene, James seemed closed off to the trauma of Lucy losing her baby, wanting to make her loss about him. “I imagine we could be together, knowing we loved each other,” he says, “and that even though Mary [their miscarried baby] was gone, we could try again.” You get the sense that, rather than empathise with Lucy’s pain, James wants to brush it under the carpet so their marriage can continue as it was.
Yet while Bartlett does explore men’s ability to open up to women’s pain, James emerges a much more sympathetic character than Mark. Horovitch rarely lets his emotions show, which makes those moments where we’re given access to his pain all the more poignant. The production reminded me that, though James fails Lucy by refusing to engage with her trauma over the loss of their baby, her betrayal of him is just as earth-shattering. The play is reminiscent in some ways of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill”, a song in which Bush imagines making a deal with God to “swap places” with a lover. This, it is implied, is the only way to fully understand someone else’s perspective and arrive at true empathy. Both Bartlett and Bush examine how men and women fail to communicate, often with deadly consequences.
The text speaks for itself, and Hillier stages Not Talking as an unfussy chamber drama. Amanda and Lucy express the pain they can’t put into words via music, and the excerpts of Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude speak volumes. The piano is paired fantastically with key emotional beats, making the familiar music incredibly expressive. Hillier understands Bartlett’s formal choices, often having the characters sitting next to each other yet facing towards the audience, so close to communicating yet falling short. Markham brings a light touch of humour and downtrodden acceptance to Lucy; Lawrence shoulders the emotional weight of the piece, while also shading in who Amanda used to be before she was raped.
The play is, if we needed it, a reminder of Bartlett’s skills as a playwright. Bartlett told The Stage: “There are things [in the play] that I wouldn’t write now, both good and bad. The storytelling has a boldness to it, and smashes two plays into one. I love it. I would hesitate to do that today.” I half-expected to see in this performance embryonic versions of other Bartlett plays, yet also identify the deficiencies natural to a professional debut. Yet Bartlett seemed to arrive on the theatre scene fully formed at only 22, even if in the early days producers failed to see his talent. Bartlett was not a less skilful playwright when he was young, just a different one.
Not Talking continues at the Arcola Theatre until June 2 2018.