I will admit outright that I find plays commissioned for a set purpose tough to stomach. For me, this process often seems to suck the life and spontaneity right out of the writing. Naomi Wallace’s And I and Silence, receiving its world premiere at Finborough theatre as part of a season of work by women playwrights, was commissioned by Clean Break, a company that focuses on women within the criminal justice system. No doubt Wallace’s play, which looks at two imprisoned women in 1950s America, reveals some important facts about an unjust justice system. It is also a touch formulaic, however, with characters that feel overdone, and symbolism so thick you could reach out and touch it.
Wallace’s play looks at friends Dee and Jamie, respectively white and black, who meet in prison and together, when released, find work as cleaners. Theirs is a story of an unlikely friendship forged in an unforgiving climate. It is about the bonds that love breaks down and the shackles that society, within a segregated America, creates. And yet, despite the gritty and messy subject matter, this is a remarkably clean play. This contrast between the complex subject matter and the tidy writing creates problems.
Crucially, the characters – blonde Dee and black Jamie – don’t develop a great deal. They are neither particularly persuasive nor are their actions, or reactions, hugely revealing. Their younger, incarcerated selves are particularly over defined. Young Dee (Lauren Crace) is pitched as endearingly dim and desperate to love and, despite some dark revelations about her past, she doesn’t move much beyond this. She is so nice – so wholly unblemished by her harsh childhood and imprisoned teenage years – that she doesn’t actually teach us much about prison life and its effects.
Jamie is the tough one – the George to Dee’s Lenny. Again, young imprisoned Jamie is overwritten. She is a tough, swaggering lass, who loves little but also loves deep. She is a hugely sympathetic character but she isn’t too complex. There are no surprises, no strange jolts that remind us this a flawed human coming up against a deeply corrupt system and, later, an unforgiving and prejudiced society. Cat Simmons does provide older Jamie with some rough edges and she’s the most interesting to watch, with a hard earned steeliness occasionally undercut by moments of reflexive but genuine warmth.
There is a formality to the play’s structure that prohibits these characters from growing gnarlier and less predictable. Wallace has a poetic ear and there’s a beautiful rhythm to some of her script, but it often feels over engineered. It becomes too easy to anticipate the end of a scene; one can sense the dialogue winding to a close, zooming in on a neat final phrase and, sometimes, a rhyming couplet. Again, it’s beautiful to have sections of verse interlaced into a piece, but these lyrical interludes take us further and further away from the characters.
This formal approach means the scenes feel crisp but rarely simmer with ambiguity or repressed emotion. As we near the end, Jamie and Dee’s relationship becomes explicitly sexual – and yet, that heat doesn’t simmer in the earlier encounters. Everything is suddenly ratcheted up. The girls’ poverty takes a rapid turn for the worse and their emotions, otherwise so cleanly expressed in tight pockets of lyricism, grow exponentially more intense. What felt like a strangely low-risk piece, despite the dangerous context, becomes a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. But this fragile play has not been built to support such powerful and personal emotions and it shakes, precariously, under the weight.