Robert Holman’s 1986 play, Making Noise Quietly,
is one of the mostly subtly influential plays of the last thirty years.
Its form is the triptych; it comprises three entirely separate plays
without shared characters and only the most fleeting connections between
the playlets. Last year’s Wastwater has the same form; so does David Eldridge’s magnificent Under the Blue Sky; Rebecca Prichard’s Essex Girls has the same intentionally broken backed structure, this time a double bill. One might even see it in Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life, if only in the work the play requires of the audience to find the links between the plays.
I say that the connections between the constituent plays - Being Friends, Lost, Making Noise Quietly
- are fleeting, but that’s both true and false. The plays fittingly,
all centre on somewhat fleeting and unexpected encounters: a sunbathing
Quaker meets an openly gay artist towards the end of the Second World
War; a woman is told that her estranged son has died by the dead man’s
brother-in-law; and a father and son, holidaying in the Black Forest,
encounter a businesswoman, a survivor of Berkenau.
The plays only fleetingly encounter each other as well. There are no shared characters, no shared settings, and - unlike Wastwater or Under the Blue Sky
- no shared background characters. There are references that echo each
other but they are not the same; a naval officer in one play is echoed
by references to soldiers in another. They miss each other darkly, but
the air moves because of them. What links the three plays is the notion
of the unexpected, transformative encounter. In the first, Oliver, the
Quaker, is led to declare his desires to have sex with another man. In
the second, a woman discovers something about her estranged son and
decides not to tell her husband; in the third, a boy sunk in his
traumatised thoughts is brought inchingly back into civility.
What they also share is the shadow of
war. The first is set against the Second World War, the second the
Falklands War, and the third sits in the long shadow of the Holocaust.
The war presses insistently on the characters, even if they ignore it,
survive it, refuse to acknowledge it. It reminds me of the 80s and that
ever-present fear of nuclear annihilation (well captured in David
Eldridge’s M.A.D.  and Gary Owen’s Shadow of a Boy ).
But here, as in virtually all of
Holman’s work, what stops the heart are the moments of sudden intensity,
the turn in a relationship that seems to come logically from nowhere.
In the third play, there is an extraordinary, excruciating sequence,
where the older woman Helene is trying to teach the silent young man to
say thank you for a gift. She asks close to thirty times for him to say
‘thank you’, patiently enduring his shrieks, his violence, his refusals.
And it builds to this:
HELENE. I cannot tell what he say yet.
SAM (clearer still, but it is obvious SAM cannot speak very well, even when he tried). Thank you.
SAM (beginning to try). Thank you.
SAM (really trying). Thank you.
HELENE. Come on, Sam.
SAM (really concentrating). Thank you.
HELENE. And again, please.
SAM (really quite clearly). Thank you very much.
SAM. Thank you very much. (Methuen, 1987, p. 36)
Bear in mind this boy has uttered
virtually nothing but grunts and shrieks in the long scene that precedes
this sequence. The scene makes clear the boy’s disturbed mental state,
the trauma of his family life, the neglect of his father and absence of
his mother. And the sequence zooms in emotionally on this one exchange.
Holman beautifully wrong-foots the audience, waiting for the words
‘thank you’ to come more and more into focus so that when we are so
close to the woman and boy, that the four words ‘thank you very much’
are an abundance, an excess of communication that fills the theatre with
Jill Dolan’s Utopia in Performance
(2005) argues that to ‘togetherness’ of audience and performers in
theatre offers an experiential rehearsal for political utopia. Moments
where we are brought together by our collective attention and the skill
and imagination of the theatremakers give us a sense of what a Good
Society might feel like. I like the argument very much and it certainly
connects with my feelings about theatre. Though she has been criticised
for it, I think she is right to revalue notions like faith, hope,
longing, utopia in the book as components of a practical materialist
politics, not, as the Left has sometimes felt, evasions of it.
It’s a general principle in contemporary
theatre, I think. The more fragmented the form, the more it evokes our
longing for wholeness. In his programme note to The Bite of the Night
(1988), Howard Barker writes ‘the play for an age of fracture is itself
fractured and hard to hold, as a broken bottle is hard to hold’. Aged
20 I think I only saw the fracture: I missed that Barker presumes that
we are trying to hold the bottle. If we lived happily with fracture, a
broken bottle would not be hard to hold.