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Arts Festival Review: Sound of Silence

Been away so long I hardly knew the place

Review by Richard Thomson

Sound of Silence. Photo: Gints Malderis
Click to enlarge

Photo: Gints Malderis

Sound of Silence
New Riga Theatre (Latvia)
26–28 February, 2–5 March, 7pm
TSB Bank Arena


A stocky woman dressed in a scarf, blue frock, brown socks and sturdy shoes pulls off the top of a large glass jar and out comes . . . Simon and Garfunkel: Here's to you, Mrs Robinson. Soon she is surrounded by young brides, twitching to the beat. A slim young man with pronounced sideburns struggles to coerce his friends into holding his collection of home-made aerials so that they can pick up a radio signal of Simon and Garfunkel. Later, discovering that his transistor only picks up Simon and Garfunkel when its aerial comes in contact with a sleeping woman, he uses the opportunity to explore her woman's body. This is Latvia, circa 1968.

In 2010, you may have most recently seen Art Garfunkel in a cameo appearance on a TV show featuring New Zealand's fourth-best comedy folk duo. Garfunkel is hardly a contemporary torchbearer for social revolution, but when Alvis Hermanis, director of Sound of Silence, justifies using the American duo's songs because they convey the naivety and tenderness of the late 1960s counterculture, I wonder if he's also smoothing over some of the cultural dislocation that 21st century New Zealand audiences might experience watching this play.

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The past is a strange place – one of the stranger sights in Sound of Silence is a dozen young people sitting silently in an apartment, each intently reading a book. (Another – maybe the one that most clearly locates the play in the distant past – is how this brief era of freedom and experimentation was closed off by having babies. Eastern European fertility rates are apparently now falling faster than anywhere else.) But those huge glass jars, along with the champagne, ID cards and endless socialising at the expense of anything resembling productive work were instantly recognisable from my own visits to the crumbling communist states of eastern Europe.

And so Hermanis's choice of soundtrack also rings true: when I turned up in Moscow with a bunch of ragged tapes of Flying Nun bands I got blank looks and enthusiasm for . . . Emerson Lake and Palmer. Perhaps it makes perfect sense that people living in a bleakly authoritarian and politically repressive society should have found inspiration in the lighter side of the social experimentation and change that was enveloping the West. The Altamount-era Stones would have held little imaginative appeal.

So I was left thinking there was plenty in the politics and social interactions of this New Riga Theatre production to misunderstand or miss completely, but it didn't matter a bit. Nor did the lack of dialogue. This was three hours of witty and playful theatre (plus superb frocks) that never flagged. Growing up, discovering sex, drugs and pop music, and falling in love might be as close to a universal late-twentieth century story as there is, and it's hard to imagine it being told with more warmth and empathy than this.

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Press release: A Play Without Words Set Behind The Iron Curtain
Arts Festival Website: Sound of Silence
Scoop Full Coverage: Arts Festival 2010

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