Handing over the mic: the stage and social change

This week, Suffragette Theatre Company’s production of Shelagh Stephenson’s Five Kinds of Silence opens on the Assembly Rooms’ stage.

The award-winning, equally urgent and disturbing play explores the repercussions that occur when a family finally breaks the silence on a long history of violence that thus complicates traditional notions of blame and justice.

Suffragette Theatre Company’s production: Photography by Rahul Shah

The very title of the piece overtly hints at a common theme across socially driven plays: breaking the silence on either taboo or challenging topics, and giving a voice to the marginalised or suppressed. In highlighting the silenced sufferance of many different kinds of victims over many different kinds of abuse (child, domestic, sexual and physical are all alluded to), the play forces such issues into conversation.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, such discussions are more prevalent than ever, and this is something undoubtedly to be taken advantage of. Indeed, when the play was first performed in 2004, a mere 15 years ago, stories of sexual abuse were whispered if they were ever voiced at all. Never, then, has there been a greater chance to naturalise the instinct to speak up, and the stage is undoubtedly an efficient means of spreading any vital message.

Indeed, since its very foundation, theatre has been used to both respond to social climates and provoke social change. The most famous playwright of all time, Shakespeare, for example, used his work to comment on the religious turmoil in England in the 16th century, and the rise of the ‘kitchen-drama’ in the 20th century was an outright revolt against aestheticism and the notion of “art for art’s sake” that Oscar Wilde somewhat promoted.

Critics such as Harold Bloom and his ‘School of Resentment’ have lamented this shift. Instead of expecting theatre to serve a social purpose, and thus diminishing its aesthetic value, he argues we should appreciate it as a self-sufficient art form, disconnected from any authorial intention or cause and effect response.

Photography by Rahul Shah

Yet, if we did so, we would undermine the theatre’s unique ability to foster a temporary community between actors and audiences, at once a deeply personal and universal experience perfect for starting conversations in and beyond the auditorium. Where the ‘ordinary’ individual may not have enough political or even legislative power to implement mass social change, we at least have the power to promote ideas and evoke feeling through art and performance, thus perhaps providing a crucial stepping stone.

Rather than an active rally cry, however, Five Kinds of Silence asks only to speak directly to its audience. By allowing each character in turn to express their individual thoughts and experiences, this harrowing play paradoxically presents its audience with a sort of idyll to aspire to: one where every voice is given the chance to be heard.

By Elvira Parr