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‘Silence’ review

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
SIlence, Donmar Warehouse, 2022
Photo by Manuel Harlan

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Powerful docu-theatre show giving voice to those caught up in the chaos of the Partition of India

Tales of lost land, friendship and lives: ‘Silence’, a co-production by the Donmar Warehouse and Tara Theatre, brings to life tragic personal stories from the Partition of India and adapts them to fit the stage.
Marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of the tumultuous event, ‘Silence’ uses Kavita Puri’s book, ‘Partition Voices: Untold British Stories’ as source material, with writers Sonali Bhattacharyya, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Ishy Din and Alexandra Wood putting together a collection of performances of eyewitness testimonies from interview subjects born under the British Raj. The account of journalist, Mina (Nimma Harasgama), who manages to convince her reporter colleagues that these histories are worth telling, on the promise that she gets her own, unwilling father (Bhasker Patel) to speak, adds a rough structure to the anthology of memories. While this lack of narrative may halt its overall drive, the power of ‘Silence’ comes in its impassioned, painful truths.
Directed by the artistic director of Tara, Abdul Shayek, the confessions in ‘Silence’ are handled with dignity and care. Designed by Rose Revitt with large hanging canvas screens that show buzzing projections of archive footage between scenes, the stage largely gives space to voices rather than things. And so it should be: for this is a legacy that has long been muted. Told in a documentary theatre style, it is full of affecting accounts of violence on once peaceful soil, overcrowded migration on railways, and kindness shared between families on opposing sides.
Still, this is a history lesson with a welcome object to critique the British. We see lawyer Cyril Radcliffe – a man who never went to India – draw the borderline to create two states, India and Pakistan. We watch the spiralling damage caused by the Partition plan being cut short from two years to ten weeks. In the audience, bodies start to itch when a white, British man talks fondly of growing up in India but recalls beauty in finding the imprint of his childhood footprint on a return visit. ‘It means a huge amount’ to have a piece of himself remembered there, he says unthinkingly.
For those of us that have a connection to Partition, this is achingly real. There is regret at not having asked our elders about their experiences. These accounts of brutal and needless killings remind us of what our families’ eyes have seen. One woman’s teary refusal to speak - played touchingly by Renu Brindle – is a sincere capturing of the choice for quiet we’ve seen time and again. Though not exhaustive, this is a history we all know.
‘Silence’ is only a fraction of the unheard stories of Partition. Three-quarters of a century later, let’s hope the rest will have their chance to make a noise.
Written by
Anya Ryan


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