Sound of Silence

TSB Arena, Queens Wharf, Wellington

26/02/2010 - 05/03/2010

New Zealand International Arts Festival 2010

Production Details

A Play Without Words Set Behind The Iron Curtain

“The 14 actors recreate amusingly and with precision that period of blissful innocence and inoffensive hysteria in the search for happiness” Le Courrier de Russie 

Latvia’s New Riga Theatre brings their much loved play Sound of Silence to the opening night of the 2010 New Zealand International Arts Festival in Wellington.

Winner of the Grand Prix at the 18th International Theatre Festival in Poland, Latvian director Alvis Hermanis has created Sound of Silence without one word of dialogue and in so doing defines a time when an emerging liberalism in the countries under Soviet domination made it possible to dream.

Set in a communal flat in Riga in 1968, the soundtrack and narrative of Simon and Garfunkel music recreates the idealistic utopia of 14 young Latvians who discover the intricacies of loving and living after the cancellation of a Simon and Garfunkel concert in the Latvian Capital.

“I’ve seen Sound of Silence a number of times, yet I still find it is full of surprises. Containing not a single word, but loads of hope, peace, love, humour and flower power –  it is a high-spirited choral work full of emotion and of course Simon and Garfunkel songs,” says Lissa Twomey, Artistic Director of the New Zealand International Arts Festival.

Alvis Hermanis was born in Riga in 1968 where he is Artistic Director of the New Riga Theatre. He also works as a director in Germany, Switzerland, and Russia.

His productions, including Long Life, Inspector General, Sonia, Sound of Silence, and Fathers have been shown in more than 30 countries, in major theatre festivals in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Canada.

Hermanis has received numerous prizes for his work: Europe Prize for New Theatrical Realities, Thessaloniki (2007); Grand Prix in BITEF, Belgrade (2005); Herald Angel, Edinburgh (2006); Golden Mask for best foreign theatre performance, Russia (2007); Max Reinhardt Pen, Festspiele for Young Directors Project, Salzburg (2004).

During a speech delivered at the International Theatre Critics Association Congress in Sofia, Bulgaria, in August 2008 Hermanis said “the hardest task of all is to make a performance about harmonious and happy people. Technically, it is a task of the highest level of complexity.”

Sound of Silence is sponsored by Minter Ellison Rudd Watts.

WHEN:  26 February – 5 March (no show 1 March)
WHERE:  TSB Bank Arena

“Hermanis is an accomplished actor and his productions tend to highlight the actor’s craft. His strength as a director lies in his ability to integrate the action into the strategy of the set, creating interesting tableaux through which his actors realize their characters”.  TheatreForum  

3hrs 15mins incl. interval

Amiable, smile-inducing fun

Review by John Smythe 27th Feb 2010

Maybe the elephants scrawled on the walls in the crumbling Latvian ‘apartments’ – three living rooms flanked by a communal kitchen and bathroom – hold some clue as to why this rather thin evocation of 1960s-70s cultural-cum-sexual revolution, as experienced in a Soviet socialist republic, works somehow.

Given ‘elephants never forget’ and the ‘elephant in the room’ syndrome, our nostalgia for those happy hippy days long gone prompts the question, how come humanity failed so badly to give peace a chance? When, in the most upbeat scene of the night, a pantomime elephant frolics through the set emblazoned with the psychedelic-bright messages ‘Flower Power’ and ‘Make Love Not War’, I find the accompanying track choice strange: a lively live recording of ‘Bye Bye Love’ (from Simon and Garfunkel’s 1970 Bridge Over Troubled Waters album, I think). In retrospect, I suppose it is used as a premonition that this communal love-fest won’t last.  

The glib thing to say would be that it takes three and a quarter hours to show us how the world as we knew it was turned upside down and some didn’t survive. And Tom Stoppard’s Rock ’n’ Roll explores the role of Rock in confronting communism in less time with a smaller cast in an infinitely richer theatrical experience. But comparisons can be odious.* Stoppard uses dialogue, for a start, which gives us access to so much more intellectual and emotional dimension and subtlety, although it is limited to those who understand the chosen language.

Sound of Silence is a dialogue-free series of vignettes that lightly sketches the era. It is “about the youth of our parents, about the time when we were conceived,” according to the programme blurb. Given the repressive regime they lived under, they lived very much on the periphery of the social turmoil that inspired the songs of the era, represented here by sixteen Paul Simon songs plus a few others, recorded by Simon and Garfunkel.

The songs, of course, are very evocative and the business of understanding what it takes, in a Soviet state, to get reception or a decent recording is both amusing and sobering.

To add, in the blurb, “Culturally nourished by Brecht and Russian theatre, this spiritual descendent of Charlie Chaplin is a bold, lucid artist [sic],” is quite a claim (the danger of comparisons again). But in and of itself, this is an intriguing piece of non-western theatre appropriate to an international arts festival for its cultural differences and commonalities with our lives.

Apart from a couple of cheeky girls in PVC coats and long boots, the play is poignantly book-ended with a frumpy woman peddling illicit goods to uptight, brown-suited men. At first it is recordings from the west. At the end it is a more ambiguous drug, captured in a jar and tipped into a bath, in which one man over-doses while others watch in a dispassionate daze …

Glass jars feature throughout, as a means of practising kissing, listening through dividing walls which soon evaporate, and containing ‘milk’ which stands as a metaphor for a marijuana-like drug (they get giggly and stoned but don’t hallucinate, as with LSD).

Single-sex room-sharing soon becomes mixed. People pair off, ‘love’ is unrequited or uninspiring, repairing and regroupings occur …

A ‘Mrs Robinson’ scenario, a la The Graduate, is evoked early on and returned to towards the end. Antonini’s Blow Up, is also referenced, in which a photographer tries to emulate the erotic photo-shoot with super-model Verushka, and two girls attempt to relive the wannabe teenage model scene, wearing the bright blue and red tights but not going so far as to remove their bras.  

A black-and-white art film offers the nudity factor and adds to the sexual liberation theme which, as it is played out here, rarely approaches true sensuality or eroticism. I suppose that is a valid point to make about those experimental times.

Nevertheless all seven women become white brides (presumably no-one just lived together in Latvia). Then they become pregnant and a stylised birth scene is followed by men trying to work out which one is theirs. It’s all amiable, smile-inducing fun.

When characters, relationships and stories don’t develop with any level of complexity or dramatic tension, however, it is a big ask to sustain audience interest for ninety-odd minutes twice. Some on opening night didn’t last past interval, given the many sequences that outstayed their welcome for our ‘first world’ sensibilities. The second half either has more substance or we’ve become more accustomed to its pitch, and given our lowered expectations there is a greater sense of story progression, after a fashion.  

And yes, there is fun with the fashions of the time, the ensemble acting is excellent (but not what I’d call Chaplinesque, in case anyone’s hoping for that), the staging is fluid and clever and – given the overdose and ‘everything upside-down’ image at the end – we do come away with a little something to ponder, amid our remembering or discovering how it was back then for us and realising how different it must have been in Latvia.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
*I’m resisting the temptation to also compare it with last year’s Death and the Dreamlife of Elephants, as an ensemble piece – except to say to all those happy to spend up large on the International Festival every two years, I sincerely hope you also avail yourselves of home-grown fare in your local in between times. For quality and artistic value it more than stands up to comparison.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


John Smythe March 3rd, 2010

Fair enough, Thomas. I do not for a moment mean to suggest theatre is best with spoken language at the exclusion of physical and visual language; that would be to deny the value of live theatre altogether.  

Clearly a production with dialogue in Latvian would be very limited in its international appeal (notwithstanding the splendid Three Sisters in Russian at the 2008 festival) and New Riga Theatre needs no further reason to choose to abandon dialogue and seek enrich our theatre-going experience in other ways.   

In saying comparisons can be odious I am saying it would be irrelevant here because Stoppard’s dialogue in
Rock ’n’ Roll goes about exploring the effect of R ’n’ R on a Communist regime in ways that are just not available to non-verbal theatre. And vice-versa. Apples and oranges.

It is also true, in my opinion, that when verbal language is present it
is able to ‘converse’ or interact with the other elements to enrich the experience.  They are not mutually exclusive: heaven forbid. And I concur absolutely that well-earned moments of silence in theatre can be extremely powerful, transcending all that has gone before. Indeed I fully subscribe to the supremacy of ‘the moment of nothing’ (a.k.a. the ‘get it’ moment) which performers must serve, and which they ignore at their peril.

I most certainly do not mean to suggest that dialogue-heavy theatre is always superior to non-verbal theatre. That is absolutely not the case and I am sorry if I gave that impression. Words can be both a blessing and a curse, as I am discovering (yet again) right now.

My point about Death and the Dreamlife of Elephants is simply to nudge those who remain unaware of it to consider the excellent theatre that is available in Wellington between international festivals.  It was the elephant connection and ensemble element that provoked that comment. 

Thomas LaHood March 3rd, 2010

 John - there are several things I find problematic with your response to this production.

Firstly, your assertion that "dialogue... gives us access to so much more intellectual and emotional dimension and subtlety" cannot go unchecked. This seems to me an untenable position for critical review of the theatre, and reveals a personal bias that perhaps explains other instances where I have been surprised by your literal-mindedness in relation to shows that demand to be understood within a broader frame of reference.  To claim dialogue as a superior form of expression is to deny and disparage most of the actor's craft.  Presence, physicality, awareness - these are the qualities that bring life to the stage and without them text becomes declamatory, stifling and ultimately uninteresting.  I can recall many instances where a silent scene played out in front of me has evoked a richness of emotion that, indeed, could never have been uncovered in an exchange of dialogue.

Fundamentally, if a company has CHOSEN to abandon dialogue as a feature of their work surely it is commensurate for you to investigate their reasons for doing so - what qualities does this decision bring out of the work?  What kind of challenges does this create for the performers?  For the audience?  I charge you with having failed to engage with this work on the terms with which it presents itself.

Secondly, your caveat that comparisons are odious does not excuse your use of them in this review.  To call Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll "an infinitely richer theatrical experience" is unfair, misleading and biased.  And why say that you are "resisting the temptation to also compare it with last year’s Death and the Dreamlife of Elephants" and then go on to do exactly that?

I can accept that Sounds of Silence didn't connect with you and your personal sensibilities.  That's no problem for me, I just feel that your review contains prejudices that prevent it from accurately apprehending and critiquing the work as it is presented.

My own experience of this show was one of at times intense emotional involvement with the world presented to me, fascination at the methodology that could have created the work and deep admiration for the clarity, fitness and potency of all 14 cast members, who to me were never less than riveting.  Their performances were so assured and precise that I, personally, feel Chaplinesque to be an entirely suitable description.

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Peace, love and yearning echo

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 27th Feb 2010

Tom Stoppard has an ageing, diehard English Marxist in his playRock ‘n’ Rollsay that “to this day there are men in public life who can’t look me in the eye because I knew them when they dressed like gigantic five-year-olds.”

In the magnificently costumedSound of Silence, which is crammed with period detail, the New Riga Theatre Company from Latvia also takes us back to the 1960s when, for a brief period child-like behaviour, peculiar clothing, and political naivety seemed suitable and subtle ways to undermine and forget the rigid conformity and repressive power of the Soviet Union.

InRock ‘n’ Roll, Stoppard suggests that the pagan spirit of rock’n’roll played a part in the downfall of the communist rule in Czechoslovakia; inSound of Silencethe songs of Simon and Garfunkel are symbolic of the emerging liberalism in the Soviet-occupied Baltic states.

But where the two plays really differ is that Stoppard’s is full of words; inSound of Silence, there are none for three hours and 15 minutes and it doesn’t matter for a second.

Director Alvis Hermanis believes that the violence that pervades modern drama is exhausted and simply boring. It is time, he says, “to make positive theatre; the hardest task of all is to make a performance about harmonious and happy people”.

Peace, love and no more war and all the idealistic dreams of the flower power era are created in a brilliant series of scenes and images that romanticise the period but also display the yearnings of a downtrodden people.

In a rundown apartment block, 14 characters take us through loosely linked scenes of surrealistic humour (five women giving birth at the same time), Marx Brothers hilarity (a room full of people attempting to get good reception to hear a Simon and Garfunkel concert) and wistful humour (a feather being blown about the stage), and in an amazing finale: ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’is played full bore with the entire cast in a number of situations that defy description but make perfect sense on stage.Positive theatre indeed.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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