Verbatim theatre can be extremely powerful, its cumulative anthology approach creating the broadest picture of an issue or the impact of an event in the affecting words of those who lived through it that show the widespread political, socio-economic and cultural implications across multiple communities, countries and eras. But it can also be difficult to stage in ways that effectively capture the full force of those original testimonies, giving them the individual space that each experience demands while also meeting a dramatic quality that theatre embodies. Sonali Bhattacharyya (who wrote Chasing Hares at the Young Vic), Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Ishy Din and Alexandra Wood’s new play Silence, premiering at the Donmar Warehouse, tries to navigate this dilemma in its exploration of Indian Partition and the long silence from those who were there.
Verbatim theatre productions usually go in one of two directions; in the first, the writer creates a strong narrative frame which semi-fictionalises the circumstances or the events it covers, using oral history interviews and conversations with participants to feed into the dialogue and the creation of specific scenarios that may compress, reflect or distill the experience of multiple people into a single character or sequence. This is often how the National Theatre approaches a verbatim show like Francesca Martinez’s All of Us, telling a story but using original words as evidence like a historian would to support the broader case being made for action, change or greater understanding.
An alternative outlet for verbatim theatre is the character-based structure that tells whole stories in a series of chapters dedicated to different individuals who give their perspective on events. It doesn’t take single phrases or paragraphs out of their original context and merge them together, but presents one wholesale experience at a time to an audience. This approach – which is the one taken by Silence – largely leaves the audience to draw its own conclusions based on the information presented across the different voices, building a picture of multiple effects, themes and consequences that create a muddier picture of everyday life than perhaps offered by the more structured approach to verbatim theatre. It is one that makes room for the complexities and contradictions of humanity and of individual behaviour and it, arguably, more accurately reflects the lived experience. But there is a theatrical cost in terms of presentational variety and dramatic drive across rather than within these pieces.
Silence includes multiple fascinating, shocking and terrible stories within its 105-minute running time. Based on Kavita Puri’s book Bhattacharyya, Kaur Bhatti, Din and Wood put a Puri figure at the centre of the drama as a writer looking to collect stories about the effect of Indian Partition on her now UK-based community of Indian immigrants and their descendants. Cast in journalistic mode, the protagonist is looking to write about the thin white line the British drew and its long-lasting effects, so the audience is shown the process of tracking down willing representatives from the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities in India in 1947 and the series of interviews that take place in which the interviewer is a largely wordless observer of another life – her silence in the moment of retelling mirroring their long refusal to speak about those painful years.
Starting with the bigger picture, Silence is ultimately an awareness exercise, its purpose is to give voice to the effects and problems generated by Partition that have shaped individual lives, the diaspora of Indian peoples around the world as well as being the basis for modern and contentious division between India and Pakistan. It is not an overtly political play in that it isn’t seeking to affect change or to champion a specific policy that will improve the here and now, and while it does have many political dimensions, not least in highlighting the ongoing consequences of empire, for better or for worse, Silence tries to look beyond the national decision-making and process of Partition to focus on micro level events in the lives of everyday citizens. In doing so, it argues for a common understanding that Partition marked a sea change in multiple contexts, not just in the overhasty British withdrawal from India but that the ill-conceived and poorly implemented process had painful family and neighbourly implications that changed everyone.
Bhattacharyya, Kaur Bhatti, Din and Wood use an openly verbatim structure, in which their central character essentially ‘collects’ the reminiscences of others in order to write a book about the effects of Partition on India communities in the UK. The dramatic driver is her dismissive father who maintains his own silence about the events of 1947 and its immediate aftermath which, as the writers provide further context through other recollections, builds eventually to this man’s story and a greater understanding for descendant generations. In between, the protagonist is a shadowy figure, sitting in recess, often to the side of the stage, as her interlocutor talks without interruption and director Abdul Shayek conjures up their different perspectives on this divisive event.
And there is much to learn about the deep complexity of this period that, as Silence argues, suddenly and crudely drew a line between two countries and several religions that had existed in relative harmony before. There are semi-hopeful stories of neighbours shielding each other from violence, of Romeo and Juliet-like couples with different forms of worship who fled together and built a life, and of individuals coming to realise later how much more they had in common than divided them. So while hindsight is a wonderful thing and it may have taken decades to finally reach that conclusion, Silence does explore the opportunity to grow and understand beyond the immediacy of Partition.
But largely, Bhattacharyya, Kaur Bhatti, Din and Wood’s contributors paint a sorry picture of mobs hounding difference out of their neighbourhoods, of deliberate tit-for-tat desecration of religious spaces, of hundreds of desperate refugees crowded on trains and forced into destitution by the occupation of their land, the scale and brutality of the displacement caused by Britain’s “white line” astounding. These experiences are given extra edges by the inclusion of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu voices all reporting similar atrocities committed against them by a newly formed ‘other’ or ‘enemy’, while the rape and torture of women as well as the killing of children is a sadly inevitable outcome of this new form of warfare. Hearing these testimonies from workers and mayors, mothers and administrative assistants to the last Viceroy, even white men born and raised in India, is powerful, almost overwhelmingly so in what proves to be the strongest element of Silence but also its limitation as a theatrical piece.
The ways in which these stories are presented on stage are often too similar. Largely, the speaker sits on the same side of the stage and recounts their story uninterrupted. These conversations replicated how Puri heard them in multiple living rooms across the country, so designer Rose Revitt offers different arrangements of furniture to convey these place changes, yet still the story is delivered as one person sitting down and speaking for 20-minutes. Cumulatively, there is a power in that, in hearing so many tales that build a broader impression of Partition, but it makes the overarching drama too episodic and creates too many peaks and troughs as one story dramatically ends and another begins, making it hard for the audience to understand the pace of the show and how an overall conclusion will emerge.
Director Shayek does some very interesting and atmospheric things with backdrops and projected photographs, telling one story entirely in silhouetted movement, backlit behind a curtain as another actor mimes on the main stage. Another uses Elena Pena’s sound effects and soft orange lighting by Ciaran Cunningham to generate an immersive impression of India at night, a romantic memory of children playing harmoniously together or wistfully watching the packed trains speed by on their way to some exciting destination years before. But the show does take on a Talking Heads quality, a slightly repetitive narrator-style, delivering a tale straight on without fully acknowledging and taking advantage of the three-sided audience present at the Donmar (a failing also notable in Force Majeure).
Bhattacharyya, Kaur Bhatti, Din and Wood’s play eventually builds to a pathos-filled conclusion that has darker undertones, looking at the shame of collaboration, the misdirection of youth and considering alternative reasons for the long held silence – shame. For the journalist lead character it is a moment of revelation and understanding that moves her deeply but there is greater potential here for impact than the current draft offers. While it is admirable to shy away from the dry ‘facts’ of the Partition, to step away from the official line and present an alternative experience, to give greater meaning to Silence, the audience does need some of that shape in order to understand Britain’s decision to withdraw at that moment, the reason for commuting their exit strategy to just 10 months and why drawing a random line in the sand creating two separate countries and 75-years of contention.
Bhattacharyya, Kaur Bhatti, Din and Wood are incredibly fair and balanced in the presentation of these stories, giving equal weight to different Indian communities, to those who were there and their heirs who felt the weight of their silence on another continent as well as to different religious perspectives. The writers seem equally open to the idea that the British were incompetent or thoughtless in their withdrawal and not necessarily malicious, even allowing one participant to rue their departure when the country is left in chaos. It never for a moment divests Britain of the responsibility for the human and political cost of Partition but it does grapple with the concept of a contemporary British-Indian identity in which Partition should have a greater centrality.
Performed by Renu Brindle, Sujaya Dasgupta, Bhasker Patel, Jay Saighal, Rehan Sheikh, Martin Turner, Somi De Souza, Anil Goutam and Nimmi Harasgama as the journalist, the actors take on multiple characters and lives within the different scenarios in what is a cleverly managed ensemble piece. But while there are so many voices represented in a play that explores the widespread impacts and effects of Indian Partition on modern Britain, it needs some exposition on how and why those things happened in the last days of the Raj which, in the long silence that followed, remain unspoken still.