In what should have been the already anticipated climax – we’d after all waited all of 90 minutes for this – June and Jennifer Gibbons, trapped in a haze of smoke, reported their own crime of arson. Instead, it caught us by surprise and left us uncertain for the few seconds before the curtain call
Staged by Shared Experiences at the Arcola Theatre, Speechless is adapted from Marjorie Wallace’s 1986 book The Silent Twins reviewed here. The book tells the poignant story of identical twins June and Jennifer Gibbons, who at about the age of four, became “elective mutes” – inseparable and refusing to speak to anyone but each other.
Their journey towards this outburst – and their eventual confinement in Broadmoor Hospital – is, in Speechless, told in painstakingly choreographed sequences. The play employs a small cast and minimal set design and costuming, and is replete instead with socio-political innuedo and criticism.
It begins with the twins’ school being frustrated with their refusal to speak, and convinced that this encouraged, if not warranted bullying. The twins are then transferred to a special needs school much to their mother’s disappointment. Their new teacher commences a student led programme that records some level of success – several stuttered hellos from June to the initial chagrin of Jennifer.
Earlier on, the play opens with a monologue while the twins stalk each other around a bunk bed, the audience get a glimpse of the kind of love and devotion that can coagulate into hate and turn inwards on itself. Then Jennifer is immediately identified as the more dominant twin, who by some natural arrangement enforces the twins’ muteness and punishes her twin for any attempts to break away from what for ten years had become their norm.
But this stage adaptation by Polly Teale and Linda Brogan is more than an examination of the dark side of a bond that many may envy from the outside. It is about the human need to be acknowledged as an individual, to be seen as well as heard. And the twins enthralled as they are by a white society that would often flagellate them for being different find fulfilment for this all-important need in the privacy of their bedroom where they enact role-plays of ‘The Queen’s Silver Jubilee’ and ‘Princess Diana’s wedding’, write poetry and take tutorials on “the art of conversation.”
But even though June seeks a release from her twin that she herself hardly acknowledges herself, her infrequent attempts at freedom are often quelled by Jennifer’s chants of “You are Jennifer, you are me…”; their family, whose denial of their problem unwittingly keeps them leg shackled, and to whom they will never be June or Jennifer but “the twinnies”; and the British society of the 80s, with its antagonism towards immigrant blacks, that further forced them together. Were they co-joined, theycould not have been more irrevocably bound.
The intriguing thing about Speechless is its agelessness. Set thirty years ago, it still reflects today’s reality – the race riots in Brixton have been replaced by 2011’s London riots triggered by the police killing of Mark Duggan. The UK’s lip service to welcoming its former colonies has given way to widespread political hostility towards immigrants, economic crises and high unemployment of the Thatcher administration is mirrored in the present day’s recession, while the backdrop of popular engagement with the monarchy is replicated in the recent surge of anglophilia inspired by yet another royal wedding.
We never get to know why Jennifer starts out in confinement for violent behaviour, or why the twins are alternatively jejune (being bribed with jelly beans) and mature (sending manuscripts to publishers), or why being bullied by a white male transports the twins into episodes of erotic delight. Rather than tell us the whys or hows, Speechless reinforces the strength of the invisible ties that bind us not only to our tormentors (June to Jennifer, Gloria Gibbons to the RAF Base wives, and shabbily treated immigrants to their ‘Mother Country’) but also to our unique circumstances, and our need to wallow in them.
The overly synchronised and measured motions of June and Jennifer and the extensive role-play begin to wear thin after the first few times, while the introduction of Kennedy is salvaged only by his employment as a means to shoe-horn yet more significance into the play – juxtaposing the nuptials of the virginal, white, royal bride with the sullying of under aged, drunken, somewhat under-privileged black girls.
The play appears to have missed its cue to wrap up or to move on – probably in attempts to end it on better note than sexual exploitation or insulate the audience from the subsequent sorrows that culminate in the death of one of the twins. Nevertheless, this performance by Speechless’ cast of five, especially the twins, played by Natasha Gordon and Demi Oyediran, is nothing if not compelling.
Speechless will be showing at the Arcola Theatre until November 19