Silence brings to the spotlight the romantic life of the husband and wife behind the invention of the telephone. The opening night of the 2018–2019 season found the National Arts Centre turning the spotlight on a Canadian icon and his wife, Alexander Graham and Mabel Hubbard Bell, in the play Silence. This Grand Theatre (London, ON) production, brought to life on the national stage by director and former NAC English Theatre Artistic Director Peter Hinton, eschews simple biography and hagiography to focus on the romance between Alec and Mabel, of their endearing courtship and often difficult, but always loving, marriage.
In fact, a telephone never physically appears in the play. A phone call is never placed on stage. While the device looms large, playwright Trina Davies and director Hinton never let the invention overshadow the relationship.
Silence gives a new perspective on an inventor whose creations are more famous than the man behind them. Far from being some business-oriented inventor, the play shows Alec—played by Graham Cuthbertson—to be, above all, concerned with his school for the deaf and of improving the lives of deaf people. It is through his school that Mabel—played by Tara Rosling—meets him. She proves to be a gifted student, with a perfect ability to read people’s lips. One can often forget that she’s deaf with the ease that she carries on conversation just by reading lips. She also proves to be a savvy businesswoman, and it is only because of her and her father Gardiner Hubbard that the Bell family makes a dime off the invention of the telephone at all.
But the play isn’t Alec’s. Mabel is the only character that starts and ends the play, and it’s her inner thoughts that we hear the most, in a series of short soliloquies throughout the play. In the second half of the show, Alexander almost fades into the background, becoming more and more of a quirky, reclusive inventor, as Mabel throws herself wholeheartedly into her own experiments and in becoming a leading woman in her community.
In her opening speech, Artistic Director Jillian Keiley said that Silence would be a great display of the NAC’s revamped lighting and sound technology, and she wasn’t lying. The telephone is, at its core, an invention of sound and light, and the technical aspects of the play, designed by lighting and projection designer Beth Kates, sound engineer Richard Feren and set designer Michael Gianfranceso, make full use of those. Words and images are frequently projected onto the walls, such as charts of human speech or the contents of letters, and one memorable scene in which Alec’s face is projected onto the wall so the audience can read his lips as he first seriously confesses his love to Mabel. Sound is explored in interesting ways too—in her soliloquies, Mabel’s voice echoes throughout the room while everyone else fades to silence under a loud drone. The technical aspects of the telephone are reflected in the technical design of the play.
Most of the play is a straightforward romance, with captivating audio and visual effects seamlessly embedded into and strengthening the many emotionally touching scenes. But if the play falls short anywhere, it is when it attempts a certain degree of experimentalism. The simpler elements of the play are often broken up by strange movement, blocking, and audio-visual effects, the meaning of which is often ambiguous. Some seem to be merely exercises in what the audio-visual crew can accomplish, with some off-kilter blocking thrown in for good measure. Embedded into a generally digestible romance, they seem out of place. That being said, the bulk of the play is still a beautiful romantic story of a Canadian icon and his equally accomplished wife, the moving story of a powerful relationship and the extraordinary things that can be created when the right people come together.
This article first appeared in Capital Critics’ Circle on October 20, 2018, and has been reposted with permission.