Magazine article The Spectator

Escape into Silence

Magazine article The Spectator

Escape into Silence

Article excerpt

It was a daringly original thing to do. To write a play where the heroine stays silent for most of the time. And the drama's creator, Anthony Minghella, cleverly conceals her reason for doing so until the very last sentence.

I can remember listening to Cigarettes and Chocolate when it was first broadcast back in 1988. It sounded so different, so strange, and still does after almost 20 years. Radio Four repeated it on Saturday afternoon as part of a short season (shared with Radio Three) to celebrate the work of Minghella, who died in March aged just 54.

The play (starring a very youthful-sounding Bill Nighy and Juliet Stevenson) begins with everyone leaving messages on Gemma's answerphone in the hope that at some point she will pick up the receiver and talk to them. But she resists the temptation, withdrawing utterly from her circle, pretending not to hear or take in what they are telling her, and turning instead for solace to music, in the hope of finding something profound within the harmonies of Bach's St Matthew Passion. But of course her wilful silence provokes everyone around her into verbal diarrhoea, especially Rob, her none-too-reliable lover (no prizes for guessing who took that role), and her friend Lorna (played by Stevenson), who has been having an affair with Rob. Not until the very end do we hear from Gemma, who we discover has decided to give up talking for Lent ('Last year it was cigarettes. The year before chocolate. But this is the best'). She has chosen to escape into silence, to start looking for what is within that silence, to realise just how words have become our first punishment, a Babel, an excuse for not thinking.

At the time, Minghella's use of the beeps and burps of the answerphone sounded cutting edge and it's a bit odd now to hear them and realise how rapidly they have become obsolete. But his way of cutting through relationships and exposing them in all their naked truth still sounds original. The production (by Tony Cliff, with Minghella himself directing alongside Robert Cooper) had an eerie, echoey atmosphere, so that we as listeners focused in on what was being said -- and its ghastly, unstoppable inanity. (Next Saturday listen out for Minghella's Hang Up on Radio Three about two lovers in a latenight phone call, which also starred Juliet Stevenson and was just as memorable. ) Next day if you'd had almost three hours with nothing to do except sit and listen you could have been witness to an extraordinary performance of Othello on Radio Three. …

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