This is a review, of sorts, of the production of Linda Brogan and Polly Teale’s play “Speechless” at the West Yorkshire Playhouse by Shared Experience on 20th October 2011. I say, “of sorts” because, curiously, for me at least, much of the interest in the play for me is in what it did not do, what it did not present, what it did not seek to explain, rather than what actually happened on the stage. Perhaps the strangely unsatisfying nature of the play and the fact that it sent me off to find out more about its subject matter is part of the what the playwright, director and company were trying to get across.
The play is based on the story of the twins, June and Jennifer Gibbons, who grew up as elective mutes in small town Wales, retreating further and further away from interaction with others and communicating only with one another in a private patois of their own. As they grew more marginalised from the rest of the world they turned to a spree of petty crimes and voluminous writing to express themselves. The two had the epitome of a love-hate relationship, being by turns suicidal when apart and mutually destructive when together.
The play starts with a scene in Broadmoor, a secure mental hospital for the “criminally insane” in the aftermath of Jennifer attacking June. It then goes back to scenes from their childhood from the age of 14 when they are forced to leave mainstream school after being bullied so much that they had to be let out early to give them a head start on the walk home and are sent to a special unit to try to get them to come out of their self-imposed exile from speaking to any other people. The play follows them as they develop their childish play-acting with dolls (they recreate the broadcast of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee ceremony) to starting out as writers and trying to get the novels they type through the night published and ending with being arrested by the police for burning down their old school which led to their ultimate incarceration.
The acting of the small cast was excellent – the girls were played believably as being by turns mute, communicating almost telepathically with one another, argumentative and by turns aggressive and supportive to one another in the world of their bedroom, innocent and worldly. This was particularly impressive given that the actress initially cast as June during the touring production had injured herself a few days previously and the night I saw the play, the part was played for the first time in public by Madeline Appiah who had only joined the cast two days previously. Before the start of the play, Polly Teale, the director and co-writer came on stage to tell the audience about this and to explain that Ms Appiah would be doing the play with the script in her hand. A sign of how well she played the role is that I don’t think it would have been noticed had we not had this forewarning. Given the mutism of the characters and the central role in their lives of expressing themselves through writing and the scripted playlets in their bedrooms, carrying round a folder of written instructions would have appeared to have been perfectly in character.
Katie Lightfoot, playing three different authority figures in the form of the Broadmoor Psychiatrist, mainstream school Headmistress and Cathy, the speech therapist the girls were sent to when the mainstream school could not cope, managed to play these roles in convincingly different styles. I’m not sure that there was a particular need for her to have been pregnant in the final one of these roles beyond providing Alex Robertson, playing Kennedy, a “troubled” American youth, with an opportunity to tell the twins that Cathy didn’t really care about them and all they were doing was paying for her to go off and have a child that she did care about. Indeed, the part of Kennedy was the only one to strike a false note in the play, probably because his was the only artistically contrived role. In the true story there was a group of American teenage boys who the twins pursued and hooked up with before they flew back home, but turning them into a single, disturbed svengali who corrupted the girls with drink and drugs before (suprisingly graphically and athletically played) taking their virginities did not ring true. Apparently in the twins’ own diaries and other writings about the related events these are remembered as amongst their happiest times. Instead, the play portrays these as some sort of hideous parallel to the ritual deflowering of the virgin Princess Diana as Mrs Gibbons is shown watching the Royal Wedding with excitement and patriotism on one side of the stage while Kennedy is with her twinnies.
The lighting in the sparse single set was also very impressive, particularly in its use of the shadows cast by the set and actors. It really helped to highlight changes of tone and scene in a deceptively simple fashion.
So, why did I start by saying that the play was unsatisfying? Partly this was due to what I thought was inappropriate laughter from the audience. This might have been the laughter that comes from the discomfort that the subject matter invited, but there were also times when I thought the girls’ mother came perilously close to looking like she was inviting the laughter. This is most likely to have been due to the script and the combination of the West Indian dialect and early 80s cultural references being a little too accurate.
A more serious issue for me was that the play did too little to try to explain how the twins got to where they did, why they were treated the way they were both by ordinary people and the professionals who were trying to understand and treat them and ultimately how they ended up where they did. From a professional perspective, one of my companions, Lou, was concerned at how the twins were portrayed as being assessed and treated together when their inter-relationship was one of the problems that they faced. It was understandable from a dramatic perspective but somewhat misleading in that in reality the girls had had attempts at separation but these were found to be disastrous. The destructive impact of separation for the twins is only hinted at in the play and then mainly on the basis of the dominant twin, Jennifer’s repeated instruction/prayer to June “You are Jennifer, You are me”.
Of course, this did lead me to go and try to find these things out, and the bigger story is an interesting one, but then, turning back to the play, it made me wonder, why wasn’t this broader story made out?
Ultimately, although it was an interesting experience, it is hard to describe the play as having been an enjoyable one to watch or one that, as a self-standing piece of work, gave much if any great insight. I found it hard to answer the question of what point was trying to be made, if any.
The fuller story can be found in the book on which the play was based, The Silent Twins by Marjorie Wallace, which was reviewed in detail by Oliver Sacks in the New York Times when it came out in 1986. He was an apt choice of reviewer given his own experiences as a neurologist (and well done to my other companion on the evening, Mark, who suggested a link to Sacks’ “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” when we discussed the play in the bar afterwards). Part of the history is also set out in the excellent programme for the production, including the shocking, but perhaps unsurprising revelation that Jennifer died of an unexplained heart attack while in the minibus that was carrying her and June out of Broadmoor on the day of their release, making her prophesy that only one of the twins could live in the outside world come sadly true. There is also an interesting interview with June in the New Yorker magazine in 2000 after she had been living with a degree of independence back in Haverfordwest.