Left - Diana Nguyen
The ideas Silence generates are interesting ones. Although the play deals with the universal themes of war, betrayal, loss and love, it’s set within a Vietnamese-Australian family and one of the main characters is a ghost. The ghost is in fact one the most intriguing characters in Silence, and one that could have done with further development.
As a whole, Silence works well. Playwright Hoa Pham fits the heavy themes, including incest, adultery and abandonment, into a One Act format with a light and graceful hand. The play was initially conceived after Pham, interested in the issue of women’s silence in the Vietnamese-Australian community, conducted a series of six interviews in 2007 with women aged between 25-65.
The play is set in a house that is home to three generations of Vietnamese-Australian women, and begins with Ba, the grandmother (Pham) announcing “You what you see and I see what I see”. Ba is old and frail. She lives with her daughter-in-law and her granddaughter, who both care for her, and she hears the voice of her dead son.
The women are preparing for the ‘second death anniversary’ of the dead son and are soon all visited by his ghost. Ghosts feature strongly in Vietnamese culture and the use of them in the play works extremely well. Director of puppetry, Penelope Bartlau has created several beautiful and innovative Bunraku (traditional Japanese puppets operated by multiple puppeteers), which, perhaps regrettably, steal the show.
Silence is let down by timid acting by the three actresses, Pham, Diana Nguyen (playing the mother) and Ai Diem Le (playing the daughter). Nguyen is the strongest performer, with an exquisite singing voice, but even she seemed to struggle to reach the dramatic high points that were necessary for such intense themes. Herein lies the main problem with Silence – in a play that, for all intents and purposes, is packed with drama, there seemed to be a distinct lack of it. This is mostly due to the lacklustre acting, but also to some drawn out moments of exposition where each character is standing under a spotlight narrating the bones of the story - a task that would have been better served through more action (and something that ultimately comes down to directorial choice).
Still, there is a lot to like about Silence. Pham explores the themes of silence and transgenerational trauma with an assured authority. On top of the first-rate puppetry, the dialogue rings true and there are moments of pure beauty: “Life is suffering. Identifying the root of suffering, then touching the root of suffering, one ceases to suffer.” There are a few surprises in store about the past of the adulterous dead husband and son, and you will smile when you learn how Doa, the daughter, gets her name.
The play is full of humanity. It’s not necessarily a migrant story either; it’s truly a story about the human condition, about what we do when we’re forced to make difficult choices and how we live with the consequences.
La Mama Theatre and Hungry Ghosts Productions present
by Hoa Pham
Directed by Wolf Heidecker
Venue: La Mama Courthouse | 349 Drummond St Carlton
Dates: Nov 11 - 22, 2009
Times: Wed & Sun @ 6.30pm; Thurs - Sat @ 8pm
Tickets: $20 Full, $15 Conc
Bookings: 03 9347 6142