Taking its name from an Emily Dickinson poem, And I and Silence is the last of three plays performed as part of ‘In Their Place’ – a three-month-long season of work by women playwrights. Not having seen the others ,it’s impossible to comment on whether they saved the best until last; however I hope the previous two managed to capture the audience as well as The Finborough’s latest offering.
Naomi Wallace premiered her first play at the Finborough in 1993 so this is a welcome return for her. This piece – based on discussions with female ex-cons – centres around two young women (Jamie and Dee) who served time in jail together, and the bond that their imprisonment helped to forge. The action segues backwards and forwards across a nine-year gap, showing us how their naïve dreams for the future are dashed and at the same time how they are dreamt up in the first place.
The set is beautifully constructed, requiring only a few prop changes to alternate between the setting of a prison to that of the girls’ later home. It is simple, and complements the action without needing to overshadow it. It also allows their world to feel incredibly claustrophobic, as if their entire relationship is played out within the same four walls.
And I and Silence explores how much we can suffer for love, and at what point it becomes impossible to live on friendship alone, however strong that bond may be. There is something incredibly heartbreaking about watching their childhood naivety contrasted against the reality of the outside world. We see plans fall through before they are even made and as the play reaches its climax the parting of the younger girls is woven in with a final goodbye of the older characters.
Issues, including race, abuse and sexuality, are all covered without falling into the trap of over exaggeration. Rather than shoehorning in ‘appropriate’ topics they appear to be a result of the girls experiences, a seemingly unfortunate by-product of being poor, female or black in 1950s America. Watching as the girls discover these prejudices for themselves, and the ways people use them to excuse their own behaviour, is shocking; at times it became almost uncomfortable to watch.
This is why – despite an excellent script, ingenious set and brilliant acting – I can’t really describe this play as enjoyable. When dealing with subject matters as heart-wrenching and upsetting as Wallace does, it’s hard to really relax into simply being an observer. You are too outraged at the indignity of the whole thing.
However the play does sometimes run the danger of becoming too focused on highlighting the damaged nature of the characters. One line in particular (about a dream experienced by the older Dee) seems out of place, and distracts rather than shocks. This is also true of the play’s finale – something more subtle would’ve allowed the audience to experience an emotional reaction, rather than simply reeling in horror.
The cast all shine, although it takes them a while to get fully into their stride. Each pair works well together, possessing the chemistry required for the more intense scenes but still able to convince during the more light-hearted moments. Cat Simmons was particularly impressive as the older Jamie, depicting the anger of her younger self conflicted with her life experience perfectly. As a younger Dee, Lauren Crace proves she’s not just soap fodder with her portrayal of a beautifully naïve and ultimately disturbed young woman.
While for me the play occasionally veered into slightly melodramatic territory, it still packs an emotional punch. This is a story that is not always told, or told correctly – the power of female love and the obstacles placed before it by a society that refuses to see past the colour not only of someone’s skin, but also of their past. I highly recommend spending 85 minutes in the shocking, poetic and ultimately touching company of Jamie and Dee.
Until June 4th at The Finborough Theatre