Image: James Ciaran / IATL and Nettle Theatre

‘Lying in Silence’: the Warwick group chat scandal told through theatre

Lying in Silence is Nettle Theatre’s debut production, focusing on what the co-founders, Hetty Melrose and Eve Allin, say is the most “immediately painful and pertinent issue that faced us and our experience at university”.

Nettle Theatre was founded largely on creating work that focuses on being a woman in the 21st Century, and Lying in Silence explores the turbulent emotions that follow the both Warwick group chat itself, and the university’s poor handling of an already difficult situation. Hetty Melrose (the director) and Eve Allin and Selwin Hulme-Teague (co-producers) bring together a performance which they hope makes women feel strong, and men feel aware. Ultimately, it’s about not feeling isolated or alone – “it’s about creating a better community”.

Movement and poetry felt like the artistic antithesis to the painful and excessive words thrown around and discarded in the group chat

Hetty Melrose and Eve Allin

Lying in Silence is a devised piece, made up of spoken word, movement and improvisation, although it leans much more heavily on the latter two aspects. This choice lends itself well to the subject matter because, as was discovered, the victims were not informed about many of the decisions made by the university, giving this idea of a lack of communication and a lack of a voice.

Upon speaking to Nettle Theatre, they expressed that this was a choice made during the devising period, where they quickly realised that they couldn’t express the mass of emotions they felt through speech – and that it was better explored through their bodies. Hetty and Eve told me that “movement and poetry felt like the artistic antithesis to the painful and excessive words thrown around and discarded in the group chat”.

Since the piece relied heavily on movement, music had a strong presence throughout the performance. The songs chosen were apt and worked well to capture the varying emotions surrounding the rape chat incident, which is credit to Maria Dunkley as Sound Designer. They definitely enhanced the whole performance, especially when used with overlays of speech about the incident, recorded by the performers.

For the company, it was about continuing the conversation and moving on

In addition to this, Jaime Bell’s use of lighting, and the thrust stage layout, created an intimate atmosphere, which was really effective in conjunction with the subject manner. At one point, several of the actors begin trying desperately to crawl towards a spotlight, which I viewed as a sort of light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel. One of them gets stuck, and the other two proceed to help them to make it to the light. This moment brought this sense of togetherness and community that is central in the aims of the piece.

With this piece being centred around such a delicate and raw topic, it was important for Nettle Theatre to ensure that “checking in and out was an essential part of the process”. Furthermore, before taking any steps to create Lying in Silence, Nettle Theatre spoke to the girls directly involved in the rape chat incident and made sure that they had their permission to create a theatre piece surrounding the events. For the company, it was about continuing the conversation and moving on. They wanted to “reclaim a space on campus for themselves, but especially for those women involved”.

It’s unbelievably strange – yet it is genius in premise

There were several incredibly powerful moments in the performance, specifically Grace Fox’s choreography. The use of sharp, isolated movements in combination with breath was particularly effective. Similarly, the final choreographed piece utilised a combination of group movements and partner work which, when performed together, was extremely emotive.

Nettle Theatre are aware that there are moments which people might not really understand, as well as other parts that people really connect with. However, keeping this in mind, there were parts of the performance that did feel a little bit slow. For example, there is a moment in the piece where two members go off to make tea, and biscuits are offered round. It’s unbelievably strange – the actors are just having a break on stage – yet it is genius in premise. Over the top of the performers discussing biscuits and tea, is a recorded piece discussing the rape chat. Except, it’s hard to pay attention to it, when the performers are right in front of you talking about custard creams and tea with a splash of milk. This nonchalant atmosphere directly correlates with, what many students see as, the university’s own response to the rape chat incident, as well as it’s following proceedings.

Holly Girven brings back the audience’s attention

Unfortunately, it goes on for too long. So much so, that the cleverness of it all becomes lost and the audience’s interest dips. This is one huge danger in devised pieces. As Nettle Theatre tell me, “the performance isn’t the end point for us” because “the process is just as important, if not more”. It seems that the moments where the performance runs slowly in the audience’s eyes, is perhaps the most valuable part of the piece for the actual performers. Although, that is a whole other topic in itself.

Following the ‘tea break’, the letter written by one of the women involved and published by The Boar, is read out. Although I’m certain most people in the audience will have read this themselves, having it read to you is a very different experience. Holly Girven brings back the audience’s attention and by the end of the letter there is a noticeable feeling of sadness amongst the audience, as the performers proceed to lie on the floor in silence. This gives the audience time to reflect, and worryingly it reminds me of the two-minutes of silence on Memorial Day. This similarity is uncomfortable to think about and brings home the severity of this situation.

This tied in wonderfully with the ideas of creating a conversation

There were several other moments where the actors were all doing different movements that could’ve worked really well, but they lasted too long and were slightly difficult to follow as an audience. Again, this is one danger of devising and improvisation, but focuses much more on the process than simply the performance. As an audience, it seemed a little slow and messy, but as actors I’m sure it was almost therapeutic and a way to explore their own feelings towards the rape chat incident.

In spite of this, one particular aspect of the performance that worked really well was the use of audience participation. I’m not one who loves to participate when I’m watching a performance, but in this instance, I felt it was perfect. Three sentence starters were on a screen behind the performers and the audience were given the opportunity to finish those sentences. This tied in wonderfully with the ideas of creating a conversation, where everyone, not only the performers, were involved.

There was a huge sense of community and togetherness

When the actors proceeded to read out some of the answers the audience had written, there was a huge sense of community and togetherness – something I believe there largely has been since the media outbreak surrounding the rape chat. This solidarity between students, staff and nationwide in support of the girls affected by the chat, as well as women collectively, was brought to the centre of the performance at the end. It completed the piece on a positive note, linking to this idea of moving forward, whilst still remembering the atrocities that have occurred.

I asked Nettle Theatre if there was anything in particular that they wanted to tell me about the piece, and they said that “all they ask is that people watch it openly” and that they “hope that everyone gets something from it”. It’s unlikely that you will be able to go and watch the performance without spending a good few hours afterwards thinking about it and, despite some slow moments, the premise of the piece itself is inspired.

To leave you with a few words from Hetty Melrose and Eve Allin themselves: “it’s never not personal, but that’s why it’s so important. Vulnerability is strength when you wear it as your armour”.

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