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Lyn Gardner: Sometimes the quietest theatre can have the loudest impact

Come from Away is quietly delighting audiences in the West End. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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I love silence in the theatre, as I’ve written before: in particular, those rare moments when it feels as though everybody in the auditorium has leaned forward and is holding their breath, when the audience’s hearts are all beating in time. Such moments can be expertly manipulated by great writers and directors, like Pinter making the most of a pause.

But I also think it’s worth celebrating the theatre that is quiet in every way: the quiet writing that clutches at your heart, quiet acting that does the job perfectly without unnecessary flourishes, and quiet direction that supports, enhances and highlights the onstage action unobtrusively. The same can be said about design, lighting and sound.

The artistic director of a new-writing theatre recently told me that young directors are often disappointed when critics fail to mention the director’s contribution in reviews. But she advises this should be seen as a compliment because it often means they have done their job well. Nobody likes a show-off.

Theatre isn’t a series of ice-skating turns, though some companies may give the impression that it is. I have seen shows so restless and over-choreographed that they have made me want to hide under my seat or lie down in a darkened room with a cold flannel on my head.

Keeping directorial fireworks to a minimum is often the best way to serve the play. Showy direction makes me wonder about the dramaturgical faults that the director is trying to hide. There is a reason why young directors often turn to the classics when they want to signal their arrival and be noticed.

I feel the same about actors’ performances. Audiences often admire ‘big’ acting. Perhaps in an age of such superb naturalistic acting in the movies and television, we crave something bigger in the theatre – and many of our barn-like Victorian and Edwardian theatres demand something magnified. Otherwise the experience for those in the gods is like looking at a show through the wrong end of a telescope.

But I’m a sucker for actors who always do less rather than more, who don’t actually seem to be acting, even though of course they are – actors like Carey Mulligan and Maxine Peake, who have the ability to simply transmit emotion are often the most thrilling to watch.

Avalanche: A Love Story review at Barbican Theatre, London – ‘Maxine Peake is captivating’

While audiences are often impressed by a big performance, particularly from a star name – perhaps because it feels like we’re getting our money’s worth – I wonder whether in an age in which there is so much noise that quiet, understated theatre is gathering more appreciation.

You might think that a ‘quiet musical’ was a contradiction in terms, but Come from Away is quietly delighting audiences in the West End. We increasingly see circus shows, particularly made by UK companies, that do not rely on a Cirque du Soleil ‘wow’ factor but seek to do something subtler and more emotionally involving. At the same time, we have seen a return to storytelling in solo shows such as Emma Dennis-Edwards’ Funeral Flowers recently performed at the Bunker in London.

‘It is all too easy to think that quiet must mean small – that would be a mistake’

We’ve always had playwrights who have harnessed the power of quietness. DH Lawrence could do it and Peter Gill is a master of the art – as is the great Robert Holman, whose plays are the antithesis of in-yer-face theatre and tell their truths with a quiet, un-flashy honesty. They are, as Dominic Dromgoole once described them, “chamber epics” – plays in which a look or the undoing of a button have “resonances that can fill Wembley Stadium”.

It is all too easy to think that quiet must mean small, and that would be a mistake. Quiet often has a depth-charge explosiveness. Conor McPherson has always understood the value of the quiet dramas of ordinary, everyday lives. His work Girl from the North Country is another example of the quiet musical.

I wonder whether there is now a younger generation of writers who are reacting against all the noise and instead offer evenings in the theatre that are unhurried, intimate and discreet. I am thinking of the wonderful plays of Barney Norris, Zoe Cooper, Simon Longman and Tabitha Mortiboy.

You wouldn’t describe their plays as restful – they are often full of tension – but their insightful observations and understated everyday poetry spreads through an auditorium like ripples on a millpond. They are writers whose quiet modest plays can too easily be overlooked in a theatre culture that likes a bit of swagger. But we should celebrate them.

Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner

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