Mike Bartlett’s little-known first play is a powerful look at the culture of silence
Exhuming Mike Bartlett’s hitherto little-known ‘first play’ might sound like a bit of a cash-in on the playwright and ‘Doctor Foster’ creator’s now unstoppable success – especially once you know ‘Not Talking’ is in fact a decade-old radio piece. But it was initially meant for the stage, and director James Hillier convincingly makes the case for it.
‘Not Talking’ is about two sets of couples who do indeed fail to communicate, and the ramifications that has on their relationships. Form mirrors content: each character speaks directly to the audience and never to their partner.
Amanda and Mark are both young soldiers; he witnesses her being raped by their superiors, and neither of them can find a way to talk about it. James and Lucy have spent a lifetime together, but there were three things they never managed to discuss: a lost child, his decision to be a conscientious objector in the war, and an affair.
Very prettily constructed, Bartlett weaves delicately improbable connections between the characters, which pull together satisfyingly. The four monologues often overlap and interweave: sometimes, two people will be describing totally different memories, with linguistic echoes or mirrored imagery connecting their contrapuntal accounts; other times, they’ll describe the same moment, offering two differing viewpoints on a scene – to droll or poignant effect.
There’s a piano onstage, and both the women use music – so often an emotional outlet when we can’t find the words – when they struggle to express shame, or fear, or hurt. Sometimes, keeping silent actually speaks volumes. Meanwhile for the men, the decision to speak can also be a bigger decision to speak out. With a commanding officer and a soldier on stage, Bartlett lightly probes at various rather masculine notions of courage and bravery, looking at how keeping quiet or taking a stand may relate to doing your duty, or staying true to individual conviction.
If the play has a weakness, it is that Bartlett fails to make Mark quite convincing: his ‘only following orders’ rhetoric isn’t written strongly enough to justify the horror of his silence in the face of Amanda’s rape. We get a sense of the barracks as a blokeish, brutish, even dangerous place – but even so, you feel, you’d say something, surely.
The performances are all very good: David Horovitch and Kika Markham convey the weight of long lives lived with secrets, but there’s also something amusing in his rather resigned air, while she gives a lovely subtle performance, tender and bewildered but with a speck of grit. Lawrence Walker is youthful and endearing. Gemma Lawrence, meanwhile, is understated yet upsetting in a speech recalling the assault; she is talking, but her twitching fingers silently signal even more.