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.