Aaron Rozanski, Director of Five Kinds of Silence with Suffragette Theatre Company, gives his notes on the production and extends an invitation to theatregoers.
Billy is dead. Shot by his daughters. But through a series of interviews, a nightmare system of abuse is revealed, as decades of trauma are slowly uncovered. Shelagh Stephenson’s multi-award winning play explores the complex suffering of one family, and the courage it takes to finally break the cycles of violence.
Above all else, it was clear to me that the only way to create a successful adaptation of Stephenson’s masterpiece is to discover and maintain the realistic depiction of humanity embedded within the characters. So many productions have simplified the play, presenting Billy as a stereotypical psychopathic villain, and his family as the helpless victims of patriarchal oppression and a neglectful welfare system. However, to present these characters as two-dimensional denies the genius behind Stephenson’s writing, which presents protagonists of immense complexity and contradiction – in other words, they are human. Thus, my decision to incorporate an older edition of the play, which encourages the use of two actors simultaneously portraying Billy on stage, allows for this complexity and contradiction to manifest on stage. Whilst one Billy narrates his life from childhood to death, he watches a younger version of himself perform his memories, retrospectively reacting to the suffering he endured, and the suffering he induced. Indeed, when the sorrowful Billy tries to apologise for his transgressions, we cannot help but feel momentary sympathy for a human who was simply another link in a generation cycle of domestic violence. The conflicting dual emotions Billy evokes from us, upon seeing both the monster and the man behind him, demonstrates the pinnacle of the play’s many virtues – violence is never simple, and should never be viewed from a singular monochrome lens.
For my production, the establishment of three fully realised female protagonists was vital for a successful adaptation. Indeed, too often have there been productions which present the women with a generic melodramatic traumatised tone, without exploring how each individual reacts to the abuse and murder uniquely. Mary, unflinchingly maternal, bears the pressure of constant composure, initially denying her anger at the oppressive men that have plagued her life. Susan, the most overtly emotionally distraught, wrestles with her tenacious therapist, unable to vocalise the shame that haunts her dreams. And yet Janet, the younger daughter, speaks with a coldness and hollowness that unsettles the audience, having retreated into a shell where her true fury is buried. As the play progresses, and the three protagonists begin to express their long-suppressed identities, we begin to understand how although abuse leaves a unique imprint on everyone, every voice deserves to be heard and understood with equal compassion.
Five Kinds of Silence is a play of rage, sorrow, and beauty. As an audience, it is always easier to ignore these true stories of unimaginable suffering, to protect our own emotional state. However, once one understands the importance of simply listening, the beauty in seeing three women discover their voices becomes a theatrical experience of unmatched power. Indeed, we are a society that too often prefers silence, and Shelagh Stephenson forces us to listen.
Five Kinds of Silence will be playing at the Assembly Rooms Theatre on 30th, 31st October and 1st November at 7:30pm. Tickets are available online via Durham Student Theatre.