'Making Noise Quietly'

The mesmerizing acting of such exquisite writing holds the audience rapt throughout.

“I do love recklessness.” The line raises a delighted laugh since, as Matthew Tennyson’s Eric delivers it, he’s flinging open a tablecloth. That tiny yet potent juxtaposition is typical of Robert Holman’s iron grip on the fascinating gap between what is said and what is meant. Even Peter Gill’s masterly revival cannot quite make the case for “Making Noise Quietly” as sustained drama, but the mesmerizing acting of such exquisite writing holds the audience rapt throughout.

Across these three thematically linked short plays first seen in 1986, Holman takes an oblique, Chekhovian look at the unheralded victims of war. The final play, which gives the triptych its title, is a struggle for understanding between an elderly German woman (a beautifully grave Sara Kestelman), a furious British soldier (a wire-taut Ben Batt) and a disturbed 8-year-old boy in his care. Second play, “Lost,” is set in 1982, when a senior naval officer (John Hollingworth) visits a woman (Susan Brown) to discuss the death of her son during the Falklands War.

The overriding tone, however, is set by the opener “Being Friends,” which is set on a summer’s afternoon late in WWII. On the face of it, this is an inaction drama — an artistic young man unable to fight meets a conscientious objector in a field, and they talk. Yet in the silences between them, the hopes, fears and dreams of these two strangers are all made both clear and gripping.

Director Gill, a playwright himself, possesses the finest ear for dialogue in British theater. And because his sleight-of-hand steering of the intent beneath every beat of every scene is second to none, every moment of charged-up subtext in these perfectly matched performances is made legible.

Tennyson enters on a bicycle and, indeed, his outstanding performance is a balancing act. His prim, effete Eric, based on the minor English artist Denton Welch, is poised on a knife edge between off-handedness and pointed determination. Aware of his privileged class, as opposed to Oliver’s more open, working class manner, he comically plays and refutes his status as he flirts with him at a point when homosexuality was illegal and unmentionable.

In his professional debut, Jordan Dawes makes an equally resonant impression, his apparent relaxation the result of complete but invisible concentration that draws the audiences to him as the tension between the two men rockets. Their kind patience with one another opens each of them up to hitherto unexamined possibilities.

The final segment is equally gripping. Confronted by the patience of elderly Helene, enraged Alan is forced to examine his reactions to his own inchoate feelings that years ago ossified into hatred at the first sign of threat. It’s a mode he has passed on to the child who has been reduced to complete silence, communicating only by screaming.

Helene’s revelations about her war-torn past opens up questions of values that are made flesh in a protracted struggle between her and the boy (a fiercely distilled Lewis Andrews at the performance reviewed) over a ring he has stolen.

There are no easy explanations as to what drives the scene and keeps it so tightly dramatic. But its absolute refusal to offer easy life lessons keeps the necessity for kindness and personal responsibility right in front of the audience’s eyes.

The relative lack of equal complexity in the second play is the reason it fails to match the intensity bookending the evening. The acting is equally measured, but the naval officer’s too clear-cut dilemma lacks the dimensions of the other characters.

Paul Wills’ extraordinarily spare, color-field design creates an evocative green space throughout with perfectly chosen costumes nailing character and era with nostalgic distinction. Likewise, Paul Pyant’s lighting controls mood with unobtrusive strength.

The evening is, ultimately, less than the sum of its parts since the play is paradoxically not as good as its writing. But this immaculate production makes the best possible case for it.

Making Noise Quietly

Donmar Warehouse, London; 250 seats; £32.50 $52.50 top

Production

A Donmar Warehouse presentation of a play in two acts by Robert Holman. Directed by Peter Gill.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Paul Wills; lighting, Paul Pyant; sound, Emma Laxton, music, Christian Mason; production stage manager, Graham Michael. Opened, reviewed Apr. 23, 2012. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast

Oliver Bell - Jordan Dawes
Eric Faber - Matthew Tennyson
May Appleton - Susan Brown
Geoffrey Church - John Hollingworth
Helene Ensslin - Sara Kestelman
Alan Badd - Ben Batt
Sam Lewis - Andrews/Jack Boulter/Ethan Hammer

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