Not Talking, Mike Bartlett’s very first play, has come to the Arcola Theatre, over 12 years after being published. Exploring conflict, simultaneously personal and global, the play grapples with questions of why we speak, or rather, why we do not. The Arcola’s thrust stage is a lit-up floor composed of squares, with a piano cradled at the back in a corner of detachment.
Originally a radio play, Defibrillator’s production under the direction of James Hillier has a tall order in re-interpreting the play for the stage, and justifying its relevance in 2018. Disappointingly, it doesn’t quite manage either.
The play itself does not feel dated, rather, given the current socio-political climate it could be argued it is more relevant than ever. In light of the #MeToo movement and the collective sense of international conflict and unrest, the production seemingly makes no effort to bridge these elements to the text, putting into question the importance of staging Not Talking now.
Across the stage, the characters deliver individual accounts to unravel the story, in recollection rather than live action, with essentially no dialogue present. In line with the theme of disconnection, the audience is the listener.
Yet a distinct lack of relation to the spectator leads to half-hearted attempts at interaction; confusing the point of contact. I wish the play had reconsidered who the characters were speaking to, perhaps to shift from radio play to the stage, or committed fully to audience interaction.
Though sections of text follow each other, this production fails to find a rhythm that is desperately missed, leading to an odd pace that leaves scarce opportunities for engagement.
Combined with the over-rehearsed performances from Gemma Lawrence (Amanda) and Lawrence Walker (Mark), I was left at a distance, yearning to find a way into the play. David Horovitch’s and Kika Markham’s performances as James and Lucy were less susceptible to this; crafting characters with dimensionality and sincerity.
Hillier’s approach to the material seems uninspired and too literal. Dramaturgically, not enough has been done to tie the storylines beyond what is being spoken, or to explore the text with depth. It questions the need for this production, if little is done to elevate the complexities underpinning the play.
Even the sound and lighting design seemed unremarkable, with the latter rarely moving beyond aesthetically pleasing. It is possible that the piece is playing with subtlety; regardless, the final product is underwhelming.
Not Talking is playing at the Arcola Theatre until 2 June 2018
Photo: Lidia Crisafulli