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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As the falcon flew towards us, its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle

In your faces, twitchers!

The BBC2 programme Springwatch may have made the RSPB’s reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk the Mecca of popular birdwatching, but Cley on the north Norfolk coast is still its Alexandria, a haven for wanderers of all species and a repository of ancient and arcane knowledge. I learned what little I know about birding there in the early 1970s, sitting at the feet of the bird artist Richard Richardson as he gave his sea-wall seminars on the intricacies of behaviour and identification. Richard could put a name to any bird, but he never believed that this process rigidly defined it.

The reserve at Cley has been gentrified recently, with smart boardwalks and a solar-powered visitors’ centre, but something of its old, feral spirit remains. On a trip early this winter, we were greeted by birders with the news: “Saker! Middle hide.” Sakers are big, largely Middle Eastern falcons, favourites with rich desert falconers. No convincingly wild individual has ever been seen in Norfolk, so it was likely that this bird had escaped from captivity, which reduced its cred a mite.

The middle hide proved to be full of earnest and recondite debate. The consensus now was that the bird was not a saker but a tundra peregrine – the form known as calidus that breeds inside the Arctic Circle from Lapland eastwards. We had missed the first act of the drama, in which the bird had ambushed a marsh harrier twice its size and forced it to abandon its prey. It was now earthbound, mantled over its dinner on the far side of a lagoon. It was bigger than a standard peregrine, and in the low sun its back looked almost charcoal, flaring into unusually high white cheeks behind its moustachial stripes.

Then it took off. It swung in a low arc around the perimeter of the lagoon and straight towards our hide. It flew so fast that I couldn’t keep it focused in my binoculars, and for a moment its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle. At the last minute, when it seemed as if it would crash through the window, it did a roll-turn and showed off the full detail of its tessellated under-plumage. In your faces, twitchers!

It was a thrilling display, but that didn’t entirely quieten the identity anxieties in the hide. One or two dissenters wondered if it might be a hybrid bird, or just a large but eccentrically marked common peregrine. The majority stuck with the tundra option. This form migrates in the autumn to sub-equatorial Africa, and days of north-easterlies may have blown it off-course, along with other bizarre vagrants: an albatross had passed offshore the day before.

Calidus means “spirited” in Latin. The Arctic firebird treated us to ten minutes of pure mischief. It winnowed low over flocks of lapwing, scythed through the screaming gulls, not seeming to be seriously hunting, but taunting a blizzard of panicky birds skywards. At one point, it hovered above a hapless tufted duck that dived repeatedly, only to resurface with the quivering scimitar still above it. Then it took another strafing run at the hide.

Does it matter whether the peregrine was a rare variety, or just an odd individual? Naturalists often categorise themselves as either “lumpers”, happy with the great unlabelled commonwealth of life, or “splitters”, rejoicing in the minutiae of diversity. I swing from one to the other, but, in the end, I can’t see them as contradictory positions.

The bird from the tundra was a hot-tempered peregrine to the core. But its strange facial markings – however much their interpretation panders to the vanity of human watchers – are the outward signs of a unique and self-perpetuating strain, adapted to extreme conditions and yet making a 6,000-mile migration that might take in a visit to a Norfolk village. Lives intersect, hybridise, diverge, in the counterpoint between what Coleridge called “uniformity” and “omniformity”.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage