Faced by a multinational cast of English, Italian and Serbian speakers, helmer Matthew Lenton has devised a novel way of leaping the language barrier: cutting out the dialogue.
Faced by a multinational cast of English, Italian and Serbian speakers, helmer Matthew Lenton has devised a novel way of leaping the language barrier: cutting out the dialogue. But far from coming across as gimmicky, his wordless production for Glasgow’s Vanishing Point company — which travels next to the Lyric Hammersmith in London en route to Naples — is a beguiling piece of social observation. Even in its funniest moments, “Interiors” is tinged with sadness, building from gentle comedy to a sweet meditation on the nature of life and death.
Wordless theater is not without precedent. Latvia’s New Riga Theater sustained two silent hours in “Long Life” to evoke the mundane existences of a group of senior citizens with nothing left to say. “Interiors” is different, however. Here the characters do talk to each other — theirs is the kind of banter recognizable from any dinner party, at turns polite, awkward, merry and jovial — it’s just that the audience is on the other side of a wide window and cannot hear a word of their exchanges.
This has three clear effects. The first, which makes the show as accessible as it is experimental, is to emphasize the physical comedy of manners. The scene, excellently realized by designer Kai Fischer, is a domestic dining room in some northern country where a genial widower (beautifully observed by Andrew Melville) holds an annual get-together to mark the passing of the darkest day of winter. It starts with some gentle comic business as he prepares for his guests, wandering the house without trousers while his granddaughter (Sara Lazzaro, brimming with adolescent nerves and potential) goes through the rituals of teenage dressing.
So far so whimsical, but things gather pace as the guests begin to arrive, each carrying a shotgun as if having battled through a ferocious wilderness. It’s not the only surreal touch, although more typically the comedy has to do with minor struggles for social status and quirks of human behavior, as in the case of the couple who dance with unseemly enthusiasm to “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
The second effect of the silence is to place all our attention on subtext. As long as we get the gist of what they’re saying, we can dispense with words and focus on the characters’ motivation. It gives the production an unexpectedly Chekhovian air as we see each character as both foolish and sad, well-meaning and misunderstood. It makes the failure, for example, of Barnaby Power’s marriage proposal to Aurora Peres at once heartbreaking and funny.
The third effect is to turn us into voyeurs. Rarely has the theatrical fourth wall been marked by so literal a divide. Peering so intently into this stranger’s house feels almost indecent. The unusual perspective was inspired by “Interior,” an early symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck in which a man brings bad news to a family gathered on the other side of a window. Here, we get another shift in perspective through the commentary of Elicia Daly (the play, in truth, is not entirely wordless) who plays a ghostly figure lurking on our side of the auditorium and showing an otherworldly knowledge of the characters’ inner lives and future deaths.
Along with the strength of the performances and the assured pace of Lenton’s direction, Daly’s contribution adds a metaphysical dimension to a piece that could have been just a clever rehearsal-room exercise. By switching back and forth from the intimacy of the scene to the cool objectivity of her observations, the production creates a touching commentary on life in all its intensity and ephemerality, its tragedy and its comedy.