Pairs of shoes lie uninhabited on stage as the audience enter. It is as if ghosts, lingering traumas from the past, are standing in them ready to speak.
2022 marks 75 years since the Partition of India and Pakistan saw mass migration, murder, and terror erupt across the two nations. The scale of the violence is difficult to comprehend, and Abdul Shayek’s Silence knows it. Instead of painting a vast documentary with broad brush strokes, it narrows its view to mediate on a handful of testimonies stratified through multiple perspectives.
The result is hit and miss. It is plagued by pacing issues and disordered direction, yet the meaty questions about morality, memory, and multiculturalism still blossom somehow.
With four playwrights at the helm (Sonali Bhattacharyya, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Ishy Din, and Alexandra Wood), it is no surprise that it plays out like an anthology. There is a very loose and conspicuous narrative string in the form of Nimmi Harasgama’s valiant Mina, a journalist collecting the testimonies, to tie them together.
Silence is strongest when it uses its focus to magnify more philosophical issues about identity. One interviewee declares flippantly that he changed his name from ‘Ahmed’ to ‘Woods’ after 9/11. His father asserts benevolently that he is still an ‘Ahmed’. On the other hand, a young couple, one Indian and the other Pakistani, want to discover their lost ancestry in what was once a shared homeland.
Its these fragments that are the tips of icebergs. They point to wider questions about the duty of storytellers in moulding identity; Silence is about much more than the Partition. It’s about how humans, to quote Joan Didion, “tell each other stories in order to live.”
The play’s episodic structure fashions a sense of meditation and reflection. There are no concrete answers to be found, and that is the point. Instead, the audience are left to draw out common strands between stories for themselves. But the unorthodox structure is also to blame for the sedated pace. Some testimonials are drawn out and some are more engaging than others.
There is also little consistency when it comes to fleshing out the stories. One is a static monologue; another incorporates fiery but erratic physicality. Others have a dreamlike aura, and others are just candid conversations. It’s not that they are incoherent, it’s just they never enhance each other to build anything beyond what is presented. Never mind the four writers, it feels more like there are four directors.
Silence is at Donmar Warehouse until 17th September 2022