Tag Archives: train

201: Breaking the Silence

12 Apr

Stephen Poliakoff’s Breaking the Silence was inspired by his grandfather, “a figure immaculately dressed for the opera, who did for a time have his own train, chugging through Lenin’s Russia’.

teapot and book

The play is a wonderful, warm and vivid account of lives disrupted by revolution, lived in the carriage of a train while the world outside changes radically. Poliakoff based it on family history, as told to him by his father, and re-imagined things by setting the whole play in the one train carriage. You can read his account of the merging of fact and fiction here.

Breaking the Silence spans the four years when Nikolai, his wife Eugenia, son Sasha and maid Polya live together in an Imperial style railway carriage, hurtling through a changing country, trapped in an anachronism of the past. The family is Jewish and wealthy. It is 1920 and they are saved from starvation when a Party official meets Nikolai and makes him the Telephone Examiner of the Northern District.

The problem is that Nikolai doesn’t have the slightest intention of doing his new job. He is an inventor and an aristocrat and that is how he intends living his life. The invention on which he is working is one which will break the silence and create sound for motion pictures. In a bullet-ridden luxury rail carriage he obsesses over his invention while Eugenia and Polya try to cover for him so that the authorities won’t discover his laziness.

Everyone in the play changes except for Nikolai, who stays majestic and incorrigible at its heart. Eugenia becomes herself, a strong and vibrant woman after a lifetime of doing what she’s told and fearing her husband’s temper.

EUGENIA: He’s always found the idea of me working extremely unpleasant. He told me once he found the thought repulsive. And I seem to be forbidden more than ever before to touch any of his work, even to glance at it. Sometimes, Polya, I have an intense desire to go through everything of his.

Polya learns to read and gets a job that isn’t just tending to her employers’ needs and Sasha grows ashamed of his father and desperate to fit into the new Russia.

SASHA: When I have to go for a walk with Father – I keep well behind him. He looks so ridiculous, strolling along, in that great coat, with a cane, in the shunting yards, among all this rolling stock here, freight being unloaded, and there he is saying good morning to everyone with a wave, like he’s greeting farm labourers on his estate.

At the end of the play, forced to flee their country, the family finally realises what it’s leaving behind.

NIKOLAI: Nothing I have ever read or been told in my life has prepared me for this shock, the sheer physical sensation when one is faced with leaving one’s native land permanently – like you are being pulled away from a magnetic field and that everything will then stop. It will have been severed.

Breaking the Silence is a beautiful re-imagining of family history and a compelling drama.

Publisher: Methuen Drama

Cast: 5M, 2F

10: The Return

31 Mar

Reg Cribb’s The Return has won awards, been performed internationally and been turned into a film, Last Train to Freo.

I was utterly engaged in this play from the first page, possibly because of a personal connection with the subject matter.

woman reading play

The Return is set on a train. Two recently released crims are on the last train to Fremantle and are making the carriage their own when a young woman gets on and becomes the focus of their games and intimidation. I thought the set up, the pace, the dialogue and the characters were brilliant. But, for me, the play faltered in the second half soon after the introduction of two other passengers and the subsequent plot twists and turns.

The play goes from something that is gritty, believable and gripping to something outlandish and, for me, disappointing. I wanted to see the situation play out in the heightened but realistic way it had started, rather than becoming self referential and too clever.

There are some gorgeous lines, like in the opening voice over: “Long ago, when summer couldn’t kill you, I would peel the burnt skin off my body and throw it into the wind like an offering.”

Cribb makes the ‘thugs’ (his word, not mine) three-dimensional people, especially Steve.

STEVE: Now I know who you remind me of. My grandmother as a young woman. I mean she was absolutely beautiful. Ava Gardner, I’m not kidding. Her son was a waste of space. So was his wife. But she was noble, proud, beautiful. I know nothin’ about my family before her. It’s like we just crawled up outta the gutter and began.

I loved the older woman who gets on the train and stands up for the young girl. The world needs more people like Maureen:

MAUREEN: This sort of shit goes on every night on these trains and no one ever does anything about it. No one ever steps in to help. It’s like that footage they kept playing on the news over and over again, of that poor bastard getting the bejesus kicked out of him on the train. Everyone just walked past it. Right on past it. […] Well, I’ve had enough of it.

My connection with the story? I was 18 and visiting London. My aunt took me to the opera and I was getting a late train back to the house where I was staying. I had no idea it was FA Cup Final night. Not a night to be a young girl on your own on the train, dressed in your best opera-going clothes, with no phone or friend. It could be the start of a play, but Reg Cribb has captured the setting so well in The Return, I don’t think we need a reprise. Specially not without a Maureen to save the day, or, at least, give it a red hot go.

Publisher: Currency Press

Cast: 3M, 2F