The opening of Noiseless and Patient is both poignant and arresting: a seal suckles a human breast, and is then rejected by its mother who smells the human scent. The play is set on Prince Edward Island, Canada, in 1883 – where four young women from Britain embark on a journey into what they hope will be a brighter future. As they re-tell their stories, we witness love, loss, betrayal and hope.
A spinster among the group, dressed in black, says by way of introduction: “I destroy things, that is what I do.” The irony for her is that she did not seek the relationship at the core of her tale, although she participated willingly. Yet she is shunned, disgraced, and in hiding, unable to work when the truth comes out. Sorrow surrounds her, and she dreads the day she will be left alone.
Several parents come under sharp scrutiny from their children. One beautiful but superficial woman may have almost cursed her child, never believing she would marry, and the lack of respect was mutual: “her inner world was an empty prairie where nothing grew.” Quiva, meanwhile, is beautiful and innocent – or so it seems until tragedy strikes her. Then inconsolable, she inflicts pain on another in hope of comfort or at least, identification.
The maid, Mary McLeish, is protective towards her charge and compassionate: “I don’t want Maud to find out that life is a veil of tears – not yet.” The maid is without family on Prince Edward Island, but finds a way to keep in touch. There is also a seamstress from Lancashire, an intellectual and progressive force, with a questioning mind and strong faith.
It works well to have four stories told by four women – more effective than it would have been with just a single narrator. But with each tale told from one perspective alone, the narratives feel self-indulgent at times. The production leans towards storytelling rather than theatre, a fact which isn’t clear from the programme, and the drama is sometimes lacking. I’d have loved to see some significant scenes acted out.
And there could be more of a theme. Interestingly, it is love that seems to signal misfortune: the women who are alone, remain intact. It is not clear whether this pattern is intentional or accidental, but it could be developed further either way.
The script, however, is beautiful and lyrical, drawing the audience into the story; and the parts are all well-cast. Leading us deftly through the women’s inner lives, it’s a strong performance from all four actors.