Life & Culture

Silence Theatre review: Witnesses silenced by the telling of their tales

Format of stage adaptation of Kavita Puri's Partition Voices, about the casual carving up of land on religious grounds on the subcontinent, sadly imposes a repetitive and predictable pall over the material


Donmar Warehouse | ★★✩✩✩

Seventy-five years ago India was partitioned along lines drawn on a map by British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe, who had never been to the country.

The violence and trauma that resulted from this casual carving up of land on religious grounds led to possibly the largest-ever migration of people as they crossed the newly-formed border between India and Pakistan.

The estimated number of deaths that resulted ranges from 200,000 to two million, and it is thought at least 75,000 women were raped and murdered by members of different religious communities.

To end the silence that shrouded the memories of those who witnessed these atrocities, particularly the millions now living in Britain, author Kavita Puri produced a book, Partition Voices, which led to a BBC Radio 4 series of the same name. Now there is this play.

There is a long, honourable line of testimony art. The most famous is Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, the film that put Holocaust survivors in front of a camera and let them talk.

Peter Weiss’s The Investigation, which was drawn from the Frankfurt war crimes trials, used the power of testimony within the context of a courtroom, a work that was later taken by Rwandan theatre company Urwintore, populated with Rwandan and Congolese actors and brilliantly used to convey what the Rwandan genocide had in common with the Holocaust: mass murder conducted as a function of government policy.

It would be wrong to compare Rwanda and the Holocaust to the Partition, despite the scale of the suffering that ensued. But the horrifying events still deserve a production that sears the audience with memories of those who witnessed what happened. And, unfortunately, Abdul Shayek’s just doesn’t.

Its pivotal protagonist is Mina (played by Nimmi Harasgama), a journalist who, much like Puri, sets about collating testimony from those who have suppressed the memories of what they saw and experienced before moving to the UK.

As Mina moves from testimony to testimony, each of which is brimful of personal tragedy, the format of the evening imposes a repetitive and predictable pall over the material, which not even the committed cast can breath life into.

The result is fatally inert as if Shayek, who for some reason has used four writers to compile the production’s material, decided that theatricality has no place with such serious material.

It’s a shame because the scene in which Mina’s father (Renu Brindle) finally agrees to reveal his memories has real dramatic promise as he finds a way of confessing his shame while his daughter is not in the room.

What, one wonders would have been wrought from the material by Yaël Farber, a director whose trilogy of apartheid plays collectively called Theatre As Witness does everything this show doesn’t, namely to use material “culled from memory to craft it into compelling narrative”.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive