Friday, 24 January 2020

THEATRE REVIEW: Extraodinary Wall [Of Silence] - The Hippodrome, Birmingham

Whilst Deaf people have been on the wrong end of the misunderstanding and prejudice of the hearing community for most of history, it was in 1880 at the Milan Conference on the Education of the Deaf that the ideology of Oralism was crystallised. Deaf people, the Conference declared, were defective and needed to be “fixed”. Sign language was considered an uncivilised, almost subhuman form of communication and was not to be encouraged.

In Extraordinary Wall [Of Silence], Ad Infinitum’s cast of four – David Ellington, Matthew Gurney, Moira Anne McAuslan and Deborah Pugh – use spoken English, British Sign Language (BSL) and contemporary dance to take us inside the lived experience of real deaf people. The three stories they tell, interspersed with insights into the historical oppression of deaf people from the time of Christ up to the Nazi era, are distilled from years of research and interviews. They are narratives woven from many stories with common threads of the fear and ignorance of hearing society and the unchallenged doctrine of Oralism in education leading to isolation, underachievement and unhappiness, yet they are told entirely without self-pity and even, at some points, with humour.

Alan was born into a hearing family; his mother loved him but his strict religious father regarded the birth of a deaf child as a punishment for some unknown sin. With no language, Alan was subjected to cruelty at home and bullying and sexual abuse at school. This persisted into his teenage years, when he would run away from home, and into an adulthood which he entered unequipped with the communication skills necessary to flourish in a hearing-centred world.

Graham’s parents were both deaf; he was born into a home where sign language was the natural means of communication, but once in a school where Oralism prescribed lengthy and ever-more dispiriting sessions with the speech therapist he began to struggle. As with Alan his frustrations were taken for ill-discipline which often resulted in him being beaten. In the workplace no allowances were made for his deafness and he became the butt of colleagues’ cruel “jokes”. His sanctuary is the Deaf Club where everyone signs and shares in deaf culture, and after an attempt at suicide, it is the Deaf Club which is key to his rehabilitation.

The story of Helen might seem at first to be the most hopeful. Her hearing parents have her fitted with cochlear implants at an early age in the belief that this will “restore what she had lost”. In fact the result is two decades in a living nightmare for Helen as the meaningless noises in her head gradually drive her out of her mind. After a breakdown, she has the hated implants removed, embraces her deaf identity and learns, with some difficulty at first, to sign.

This is a bilingual performance and the BSL element undoubtedly added layers of nuance which I with almost zero command of that language could not grasp, and indeed one of the revelations of Graham’s story is that he ultimately comes to see the hearing world as being disadvantaged as it is unable to access deaf culture. Looking round before the performance started I’d guess 50% of the audience were using sign language though how many are bilingual was impossible to tell.

The third language used is the universal one of physical storytelling through dance, and many of the most harrowing scenes in the stories are told in this way with no spoken or signed words. Thus we see the brutality Alan receives at the hands of his father, Graham’s attempted suicide and Anna’s surgery (enacted with a watermelon and a set of power tools to reinforce its unpleasantness) without commentary but with the background of Sam Halmarack’s insistent and unsettling soundtrack with its repeated low-frequency beat that can be felt as well as heard.

Extraordinary Wall [Of Silence] demands much of the four performers and it packs a lot into just 80 minutes. It is a compelling work, profound and moving, and whilst two of the stories end happily, it finishes with one final challenge. Genetic editing therapy is beginning to offer the chance to rewrite DNA to change the one “letter” of code which causes deafness. Will this mean an end to deaf culture? If you were to become the parent of a deaf baby, what choice would you make for the child?

Reviewer - Ian Simpson
on - 23/1/20

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