Silence Review – Medieval Play explores timeless fears of apocalypse

Silence Review - Medieval Play explores timeless fears of apocalypse

review by Kate Taylor

Strongly recommended: Moira Buffini Plays 1: Blavatsky’s Tower, Gabriel, Silence, Loveplay

‘Silence’ is set in the shadow of the end of the world. That’s not unusual as dominant themes go; consider blockbuster disaster films like 28 Days Later and I Am Legend.

But Silence is not a film: it’s a play. It’s also set just over one thousand years in the past.

Written by contemporary playwright Moira Buffini, Silence is set in the tenth century A.D., a time of fear and uncertainty. Viking raiders were a constant threat; signs and portents foretold the end of the world. The action begins with Ymma of Normandy, a fiery French noblewoman (based on a real historical figure) who is travelling to Canterbury to meet her future husband, Silence, Lord of Cumbria. Ymma is less than pleased to discover that Silence is only fourteen years old – but an even greater revelation on their wedding night binds them closer together and sends them fleeing for their lives.

A cart chase from Kent to Cumbria (the length and breadth of the country for those not familiar with English geography) ensues with Ymma’s long suffering ladies’ maid Agnes, a priest named Roger and the King’s right hand man Eadrick Longshaft along for the ride. As the characters travel further north they begin to question their religion, their genders and ultimately themselves.

But as they make their way to Silence’s castle in Cumbria the king is already ahead of them, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake which puts both Ymma and Silence’s secret and their lives in danger. The mesh of lies, doubts and love triangles comes to a head in a climactic scene brought on by a meal of hallucinogenic mushrooms.

To talk too much about the play’s portrayal of gender would spoil an early but elegant surprise, but I will say that gender is treated with intelligence and sensitivity, exploring how gender constructed and whether it is intrinsic at all. Buffini also explores male gender expectations and how they would have impacted (and still impact) men.

This shouldn’t be surprising as Silence is a supremely generous text. The lines between ally and antagonist blur until they are barely recognisable and characters remain sympathetic even as they commit horrible acts. When one character confesses to killing his wife ‘out of mercy’ after she was raped, the audience is not just horrified that a man has murdered his wife, but that he sincerely believed he had to. Gender, poverty and politics are traps that ensnare the characters (including the male, rich and powerful) but the beautiful thing about the cast of Silence is that they are allowed the autonomy to fight back.

Ideologies are also treated sympathetically. The clash between the old Pagan religion and early Christianity is shown with sensitivity and humour. Pagan inclined mooks will appreciate the comparison of the Norse Ragnorak with the Christian Apocalypse. Buffini skilfully combines the two to create an atmosphere of both uncertainty and inevitability: the world will end in fire or in ice but no one doubts that it is going to end. Silence’s passionate defence of Ragnorak not as an ‘eternity of ice’ but a time of sacrifice and rebirth is both beautiful and intensely relevant. Every winter, Buffini tells us, is a kind of Ragnorak, but every year the sun comes back and the world is ‘reborn’.

It’s a refreshing message of hope that’s especially relevant as we face global warming, religious extremism and various worldwide pandemics, but to describe it that way would be to betray Buffini’s core message; that every generation fears it may be the last and every generation so far has been wrong. Without revealing too much of the ending, the world does not end and the characters are given the happiest ending that history and historical realism will allow. Buffini is both practical and optimistic: her characters are at various points married to tyrants, stripped of their lands and titles, and sold like livestock but manage to snatch back a little happiness for themselves. She shows us that the strength of human nature is rooted not in invulnerability but in its ability to survive and rebuild.