Lyn Gardner writes about theatre for the stage and the independent and is recipient of the 2017 UK Theatre Award for outstanding contribution to British Theatre.
I love nothing more than silence in a theatre. Not the deadly silence that falls like a sprinkling of toxic dust across the auditorium when an audience has become disengaged from what is happening on stage and are present in body but no longer properly present in mind or heart.
Rather, I’m thinking of the theatre silences that send a shiver down the spine and create a sudden thrill. There are so many different kinds of silence in theatre. There is the silence of an empty theatre. I am of the belief that no loved theatre is ever really empty. If you listen hard in most apparently empty theatres, there is often a faint but detectable noise on the other side of the silence which is filled with the whispers of all the shows that went before.
It’s one of the reasons why I love being one of the very first members of an audience to enter an auditorium. Particularly London’s beautiful old West End theatres with their long and often complex histories, where the silence of an empty auditorium is pregnant with expectation.
It’s as if these empty spaces are always waiting. Waiting to be brought back to life again by the expectant murmurs of an audience, by the first notes of an orchestra striking up, the swish of a curtain, by a figure suddenly caught in the light on stage and a voice filling the void, all that “shouting in the dark” as Michael Gambon once memorably described the art of acting.
There is also the particular silence that fills a theatre in the seconds just before a show begins, and it is a silence tinged with an optimism, excitement and promise which can be intoxicating. On a really rare night it is matched by an even more charged silence at the very end when the audience are still so tightly held in the grip of what they have just witnessed that they need a moment to collect themselves and gather their emotions before they break into an explosion of applause which blows the silence apart. Woe betide the audience member who in their eagerness to show appreciation breaks that silence too quickly.
Come to think of it, perhaps theatre—which we often think of as a noisy medium, one full of words– is actually a series of punctuated silences. Pinter clearly understood this. But many other great playwrights know it too. Just as often what is most interesting about the way bodies are arranged on stage in a play is the physical gaps between them, so how a playwright writes silence can turn a good play into a great one. Caryl Churchill is mistress of that. Shakespeare, of course, knew that ‘the rest, is silence.”
There is that extraordinary moment at the end of Edward Bond’s Saved when Len mends a chair in silence and yet it says everything you need to know. With his dialogue, Peter Gill uses silence like a composer uses it in a musical score. Amongst younger playwrights there is no-one more skilled at employing silence than Annie Baker who in plays such as The Flick and John offers characters who seem uneasily aware that they cannot put their faith in words and fall into long, sometimes anguished silences as if language has entirely failed them. It is oddly mesmerising, a silence that simmers and haunts.
But the silence I love most in the theatre is the silence of an audience in the middle of a play when they are totally entranced and are hanging on every word. We talk a great deal – and I often think rather blithely and wishfully- about how theatre makes a community out of an audience. Mostly it doesn’t. But occasionally, very occasionally in the theatre there are those moments when a show takes flight and when it feels as if every single person in the audience has leaned forward, our hearts are beating together, and we are all holding our breath. We are one.
It is the mightiest silence in the world. It shimmers. If you are a regular theatre-goer you might be lucky enough to experience it once or twice a year. And when we do, it is a real gift, a precious moment which reminds that in the theatre silence really can be golden.Back to Journal