‘Not Talking’ was written in 2005 but has only recently appeared on stage. Its author Mike Bartlett, who has become very successful in the meantime, shows us the raw, wounding impact of silent collusion on the young members of a military organisation and the corrosive effects of long-term withholding between a couple.
Both the content and the form of the play suggest patterns that exist in many organisations. What employees might casually refer to as the ‘elephants in the room’ can be dangerous, difficult, elusive topics wrapped up in fears, guilt, shame and misuse of power. In the play, the character James’ moral decision to become a conscientious objector is mirrored by Mark’s wilfully blind obedience to the immoral code of the barracks. They are unable to discuss their decisions and the tragedy builds with the silence of Amanda who wants to not be seen as a victim, and Lucy’s silent, constrained grief. For all the powerful drama, the play made me reflect on the ordinary, unpleasant themes of silence in organisational cultures that are likely to impact real people’s lives. You, too, may know of examples, perhaps decisions left unchallenged so as to not disturb the status quo, people moved aside or downwards without explanation, feedback not given in order to avoid an upset or angry response, or the collective norms that say, ‘You’re not okay’. Refusal to discuss inter-personal difficulties impacts more than just the main protagonists, in the office as on any stage.
The playwright’s skill helps us to empathise with the cause and effect of each character’s inaction in not speaking out. And then in the play, from cultures of brutality and bullying, deception and betrayal, we see appear unconditional love, trust, courage and the desire not to repeat past failings. These qualities drive the same fallible characters to redeem themselves and help others to stand up and speak out. Leadership is self-selective; change follows.
Empathy is needed when a group or a person is ‘not talking’ about what matters, because it can be hard to pick up clues. In the piece, Lucy plays Chopin as an alternative, eloquent outlet for all she cannot discuss. Working life throws up less aesthetic behaviours, such as disruption, drinking, or overwork to name but three. In an organisational system, everyone feels the strain and the culture may become increasingly toxic. If leaders are not part of the solution, it’s often because they are the source of the problem.
The play is structured into separate but interwoven monologues. We hear more than one side to every story; we understand how individuals get trapped in silos of silence. We see how true it is that labels of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ apply only to deeds, not people. The play’s two story strands interlock, and similarly, we cannot separate out who we are in public and who we are in private. Our adult life is a personal-professional dynamic, visible through what we do in the roles we play every day. All human lives are complex, nuanced, and inter-related with others. Let us each have the courage to find a way to speak out when it is our time to do so, and let us in turn greet with our most compassionate listening those who make that painful and difficult choice.
‘Not Talking’ is playing at the Arcola Theatre, London E8 until 2nd June.