April 24, 2012 5:32 pm

Making Noise Quietly, Donmar Warehouse, London

Though bleak in its subject matter, Robert Holman’s influential triptych is surprisingly heartening

The programme notes for this revival make explicit how dramatic triptychs such as David Eldridge’s Under the Blue Sky or Simon Stephens’ Wastwater have been strongly informed by Robert Holman’s tripartite work from 1986 (these three writers collaborated on 2010’s A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky), but in truth no such pointers are required. In his trio of meditations on “war and chance”, Holman takes an understated approach that faces the enormities of this world unflinchingly yet affirms the possibilities of human connection and individual progress. This combination of bleakness and hope, in a measured voice, has grown more familiar through the work of a number of younger writers.

In the first play, Being Friends (which in Peter Gill’s production lasts 35 minutes), an openly homosexual writer and artist and a conscientious objector meet in a Kent field during the second world war, and gradually bare themselves to each other both figuratively and then literally. In Lost (20 minutes), a naval officer visits a mother to tell her of the death in the Falklands war of her estranged son. In the play that gives the triptych its name (60 minutes), an elderly German woman in the contemporary Black Forest challenges a violent, foul-mouthed British squaddie and his autistic young charge to confront their own obstinacies of behaviour.

As a playwright Gill has influenced Holman, and here, as director, he displays an instinctive touch for leaving the unsaid unsaid. Matthew Tennyson may conduct himself with a kind of florid languor in Being Friends, but does not overdo it; Susan Brown is excellent as the bereaved, bewildered Mrs Appleton in Lost. In Making Noise Quietly itself, Sara Kestelman as the elderly woman, Ben Batt as the soldier and (on press night) Lewis Andrews as the all-but-mute boy give interwoven portraits of the comfort to be found in of failure and the paradox of well-intentioned yet extreme coercion. The moment when young Sam writes a few words on his arm in marker chillingly prefigures Helene’s uncovering of her own tattoo from Auschwitz.

Neither Holman’s writing nor Gill’s staging (on a minimalist set by Paul Wills) contains an atom of palliation, of emotional or intellectual cop-out, yet we emerge from the theatre surprisingly heartened.

4 stars

Sponsored by Barclays Capital, www.donmarwarehouse.com

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