Theatre Review: Making Noise Quietly

Peter Gill's revival of Robert Holman's triptych at the Donmar Warehouse is unmissable.

Robert Holman wrote Making Noise Quietly in 1986, in a Britain still raw from the effects of the Falklands War. But the triptych of plays examines war in several forms, also exploring aspects of the Second World War and the Holocaust.

In Peter Gill's revival at the Donmar Warehouse, the subjects are the same, but the recurring themes in all three plays could equally be applied to the wars we are engaged in today - and remind us constantly of our present situation.
 
The first play, Being Friends, is set in 1944 and focuses on the conversation between two young men who meet on a field in Kent; the second, Lost, is set in 1982 and reveals a mother's grief as she comes to terms with the loss of her son in the Falklands; the third, Making Noise Quietly, concerns the meeting of a German Holocaust survivor, a severely autistic English child and his stepfather, who stumble across one another in the Black Forest in 1986. 
 
Each play deals with similar issues: desire, loss, rejection, anger, pain and forgiveness. But they are each plays in their own right and we cannot help but compare them.
 
Holman's triptych explores how war can bring together entirely different people who might not otherwise meet. In the fisrt play, Being Friends, Oliver (Jordan Dawes) is a farmer and former chemistry student. He exudes stereotypical masculinity: strong and silent; broad Manchester accent; at home with matters of facts and science. The artist Eric (Matthew Tennyson), meanwhile, is effeminate, highly cultured, and feeble as a result of a recent motor accident. The contrast between the two is humorous in its flagrancy; yet they are brought together through their disengagement with the war: Eric because of his accident, Oliver being a conscientious objector. 
 
In Being Friends, Gill's casting is flawless and it is the actors who fully realise Holman's characterisation. Dawes is broad-shouldered and handsome, spending most of his stage time lounging across the floor; meanwhile, Tennyson is pale, thin as a bird and nervously fiddling with his old-fashioned glasses. Their onstage chemistry, bringing the subtext bubbling to the surface, is so in tune that what could be a mundane conversation becomes an exciting, entertaining snapshot that is fraught with tension. 
 
In Holman's second installment, Lost, Susan Brown gives a breathtaking performance as May, who hasn't seen her son for five years. His friend and fellow army officer Geoffrey (John Hollingworth) pays her a visit, and the short play (in fact, shortest of the three) is an examination of her reaction. We learn a great deal about the relationship between May and her son Ian, but the play is essentially a monologue from May, with the odd comment from Geoffrey thrown in. We learn nothing about him: the only time he speaks is in relation to Ian and May, and for this reason the characterisation in Lost is not as well-rounded as it is in the other plays. 
 
The third play, Making Noise Quietly, examines pain, anger, and the ways we deal with them. Helene (Sara Kestelman) is a Holocaust survivor who is enjoying her later years painting in the Black Forest. Sam (played on the press night by Lewis Andrews) has stumbled across her and refuses to leave, followed by his stepfather Alan (Ben Batt). Sam is severely autistic and can't speak; he screams at anyone who gets in his way and, we learn, frequently wets the bed. He has driven Alan to the end of his tether, but they are not so different after all: both abandoned by Sam's mother and Alan's wife; both lonely; both bursting with anger at the world around them. While Sam cannot form any words, Alan has verbal diarrhoea, swearing with practically every sentence (a brilliant nod to the first play, Being Friends, in which both Oliver and Eric are aghast when referring to the use of the "f"-word). 
 
We learn that Helene has her own anger, too: at the concentration camp guards who took her childhood from her and killed her family. Alan doesn't know how to deal with this, the entire notion being completely removed from what he is used to. The situation asks fascinating questions about the measurement of suffering and what really warrants anger. And as with Eric and Oliver in the first play, Alan and Helene could not be more different, tied together by both frustration at Sam and the desire to help him. Kestelman's interpretation of Helene is remarkable: there is a scene that makes us question whether she is so disturbed that her morality has actually been compromised; the mood was so awkward that I wanted to jump out of my seat and either leave the auditorium or put a stop to the whole charade. But what is the good of theatre if not to provoke reactions like this?
 
Because of their complexity and potency on several levels, the first and third plays are far stronger than the second. But Holman's script is, as it always was, fantastic, and the cast bring it to life in a way that would be impossible to beat. Making Noise Quietly is a thrilling play.
Sara Kestelman and Lewis Andrews in Making Noise Quietly. Photo by Johan Persson
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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era