Review: A taught and deeply moving look at the trauma of war on Leamington stage

Nick Le Mesurier reviews The Silence at the Loft Theatre Studio, Leamington

Faced with the true horrors of war, when words don’t do justice to the experience, the only response is silence. For many of us this is a voluntary mark of personal or collective respect, an acknowledgement of what has been lost. For some, like Sergeant Matthew Williams (Michael Barker) in David Fletcher’s new play, The Silence, it is a forced silence, an utterly overwhelming response to personal trauma of a kind that no-one who has not experienced it can fully understand, for which words are inadequate.

But if not words, then what have we got to tell what must be told, lest it destroys us? This is Sgt Williams dilemma. He is a survivor of the Falklands War, shocked beyond recognition by seeing his best friend shot by a sniper before his very eyes. Now he is in a military hospital back in Britain, suffering alone and in silence. The hospital administrator, Major Helen Whitfield (Ruth MacCallum) is his nemesis, a woman seemingly more interested in performance figures than patients, who wants to move him on because he is blocking a bed. The only man who can save him Chris Mason (Phil Reynolds), a counsellor brought in to try to prise open the locked doors of Williams’s mind.

In real life this would be a long hard process, perhaps with no happy ending in sight. Here, in David Fletcher’s taught, deeply moving play, it lasts just an hour. But the distance travelled is enormous, and the feelings along the way palpable.

Ruth MacCallum gives her part a dignity and complexity that is not often found in such a role. It is a powerful, complex performance. Phil Reynolds’s portrayal of Chris Mason, is of a man fighting his own battles with the past, who emerges as a kind of hero, in a conflict where the nature of heroism itself is conflicted. Much of the play involves him listening to Sgt Williams, allowing him to be heard. As he walks beside the damaged man, so we walk beside him. He embodies that much misunderstood word, compassion.

Michael Barker’s Sgt Matthew Williams is at the centre of the play. He is a dark, brooding, ugly, angry man, a man deeply damaged by the demands placed upon him in active service, and one whom most of us would very likely cross the road to avoid. His pain is palpable, extending throughout the whole play. Yet he is redeemed in the end by a kind of love, which he returns as best he can. It is a towering performance, complex and deeply felt.

At the end Sgt Williams is discharged, ‘cured’, though God knows where and what he is going to. What is there after this? To paraphrase Wilfred Owen’s words, “Only the monstrous anger of the guns,” and the silence thereafter. It, and the play named after it, are worth listening to.