HOME Theatre, Manchester; Saturday 15th February, 2020
In 1880, an international conference of deaf educators held in Milan, Italy decreed that, due to the “incontestable superiority of articulation over signs”, deaf students should not be taught sign language and they should instead be given the chance to conform by only ever learning to lip read.
A decision made by 164 attendees – of whom only one was actually deaf themselves, and which also included one very surprising famous name – went on to have profound consequences for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community globally.
The intriguingly titled Extraordinary Wall
of Silence by Theatre Ad Infinitum presents a powerful and compelling hypothesis which, in less than an hour and a half, emphatically explains why articulation and signing are more than just pragmatic tools of communication – they also clearly serve as critical outlets for the expression of self-identity and thus the human experience itself.
For any non-deaf audience members who have spent their entire lives mostly oblivious to the deaf experience, this show delivers a surprisingly sharp shock. The opening scenes which tell of the 1880 conference seem absurd in our modern age – those events are all too easily dismissed as some unfortunate and misguided unpleasantry from a bygone age.
What happened back then is regrettable, we lament the unfortunate impact but all agree that the world has moved on. The non-deaf audience therefore shuffles around a bit in mild discomfort but otherwise it sits easy as it is able to assuredly and self-confidently proclaim that the world is in a much better place than that now.
But is it really? Extraordinary Wall
of Silence brings proceedings much more up to date with three stories of personal experience that suggest that the so-called Oralist Normalcy may still be suppressing and oppressing – albeit in more concealed and undetectable ways.
The very concept of an Oralist Normalcy is a fascinating one, one which most non-deaf persons may never even have considered before, yet this show both presents and confirms it – which is an impressive achievement for something that is a work of artistry rather than some academic lecture.
On stage four performers occupy a simple yet alluring set comprised of side-panels which guide the audience’s gaze towards some infinite vanishing point in the distance. With very little use of props, the visual input elicits a strong and determined focus – focus on the physical movements of the performers, focus and perspective on the experiences being described.
Three of the performers use only sign language during the show. The narration of a fourth performer serves the non-deaf audience members who would otherwise not be able to follow proceedings. Thus the Oralist Normalcy has been reversed: this is a show for deaf people and an oralist has been provided for those who need it. Even more intriguing is the occasional use of projected captions – sparking the sudden realisation that they are a common tool which allows both target cohorts to receive the show via the same method.
of Silence is based on first-person accounts, three actual stories from the deaf community – stories of growing up, fitting in, rebelling, expressing, retreating, fighting – all three describe differing personal experiences. Some of it is hard to watch, but never is it a preachy telling off, or an attempt to draw sympathy and agreement – it is what it is and the power and energy of the delivered performances speak for themselves.
In terms of theatrical form, the show quickly settles into a captivating oscillation between traditional enactment of dramatic scenes and a far more expressive physicality – one which ventures towards a contemporary dance piece but which always seems to stop just short every time. Thus the direction seems to reinforce the sense that some form of ingrained component of self is about to be unleashed but that some intangible and nefarious constraint is acting as a suppressant.
of Silence is a pleasingly entertaining work of theatrical declaration. It is an informatively educational piece which has clearly been crafted carefully and thoughtfully yet which still exudes so much artistic flair and emotional power. This is far more than a show by deaf people about deaf people: the expressive energy is brilliantly channelled to create an experience that informs and confronts at the same time.
Photography: Alex Brenner
|Visual pleasure||Staged with a minimalist set but brought to life by outstanding lighting work to constantly shift attention from one performer to the next. Visually it all matched up pleasingly with the physicality and energy of the performance.||5|
|Auditory pleasure||Wonderfully engineered musical accompaniment that was present throughout the show. The deeper-than-average basses and percussion were presumably a deliberate construction, one which was clearly noted and appreciated by the deaf members of the audience. It felt like more than just an accompaniment though, it seemed to drive the storytelling pace and set the moods perfectly.||5|
|Architecture & Theme||Three individual stories being told – all clearly linked by the same theme. The linear delivery felt slightly inorganic: the third story seemed to have less impact than the first two, mainly because it was clear what themery was coming. Could perhaps therefore do with shortening slightly.||4|
|Artistic delivery||Four outstanding performances on stage, full of energy, expression and enough anger at the right moments to combat the “we know what’s best for you” arrogance which the show rages against.||5|
|Overall impact||Draws out a series of emotional responses ranging from the uncomfortable truths of history to the much more uplifting personal stories of achievement that most would probably just take for granted.||4|
|0||Detrimental – This aspect of the performance was so bad that it made the overall experience worse|
|1||Weak – This aspect of the performance was poor|
|2||Adequate – This aspect of the performance was perfectly acceptable, though nothing special|
|3||Good – This aspect of the performance was above average, it pleased in some way|
|4||Excellent – This aspect of the performance was much better than normal, it was impressive|
|5||Awe-inspiring – This aspect of the performance was exceptional, new boundaries were pushed.|