From David Plater’s shafts of light cutting through the slatted-wood ceiling of Ben Stones’ minimal set to the suggestive effects in Gregory Clarke’s soundscape, the technical side of Simon Evans’ production of “The Silence of the Sea” is nicely illustrative. But in terms of drama, Anthony Weigh’s self-conscious adaptation of Vercors’ WWII novel of the French Resistance barely rises above the poetic. It’s so allusive that until the very end its meaning remains frustratingly elusive.
The 1942 novel has been adapted for the screen on several occasions, not least for the potential power of its governing idea. During the war, German officer Werner (Leo Bill) is billeted upon a provincial French uncle (Finbar Lynch) and his niece (Simona Bitmate), who don’t so much suffer in silence as wield power through it. They control their unwelcome guest by completely refusing to talk to him.
Weigh replaces prose narrative and internal monologue with audience address by the uncle. It is he who purringly describes the (in)action. He barely finishes a thought, however, before his speech (and, therefore, the actor’s energy) drains away. The idea is clearly that the gaps his character leaves will be filled by audiences, but without the necessary grounding information, things are seriously unclear. For a very long time we cannot make out the relationships or the underpinning motives, much less care about them.
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That lack of clarity leads to the actors playing high stakes drama but with the crucial subtext illegible. What should be powerful feels portentous. Her eyes permanently downcast, Bitmate is clearly hiding emotions, but we cannot read them.
It’s left to Bill’s Werner to drive the show. Helmer Evans tempers Bill’s tendency towards overstrident playing and the latter nicely conveys how Werner’s use of over-explanatory speech is a form of self-justification. But the script doesn’t allow what should be the anchoring relationships to flourish.
Given the power of silence in the theater, it’s understandable why Weigh and Evans were drawn to the material. The latter recently scored a bullseye with a superb revival of “Thom Pain (based on nothing)” — another piece in which controlled silence plays a strong part. But here, paradoxically, the only time we feel truly engaged is in speech with Werner relating an affecting story about Nazi behavior. But considering that the event he recounts happens away from the uncle and his niece, it serves as an indictment of the lack of drama on stage.