CentralDramaPhysical TheatreReview

Extraordinary Wall [Of Silence] – Birmingham Hippodrome

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Devised by the cast

Director: George Mann

Imagine being in a world where everyone else knows and understands what is happening, a world that you cannot fathom because everyone else uses something beyond your understanding to co-ordinate their actions and daily lives. Imagine how isolating it would feel not to know why things are happening as they are, being cajoled into actions that make little or no sense to you, having any control over aspects of your life denied. If you are a member of the Deaf community for much of the last 150 years you won’t have to imagine, it may well have been your day-to-day reality. The Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf that took place in 1880 passed eight resolutions that essentially banned the use of signing in the teaching of deaf students, requiring them to be taught the skills of speaking and lip-reading, an approach is known as oralism. It was a hundred years later that the 15th International Congress began the process of overturning the supremacy of oralism in deaf education.

Ad Infinitum seeks to tell the stories of those marginalised and so the impact of oralism on the Deaf community was an obvious area of interest. Inspired by the work on Deafhood and Deaf Culture by Paddy Ladd, they garnered testimony from members of the Deaf community. While this is not a verbatim piece – contributors were guaranteed confidentiality – it nevertheless rings true as we meet three Deaf people and join them on their journey to Deafhood.

Alan (David Ellington) was born to hearing parents who, as fundamentalist Christians, believed his deafness to be some sort of punishment to be overcome. He had no language until he was five and was abused at school. Sent to a unit for the hearing-impaired despite being profoundly deaf, his early life is thoroughly miserable. Graham (Matthew Gurney) may have had a better start: born to deaf parents, he is a fluent signer, but still feels marginalised in a hearing world that seems to seek to force him through speech therapy into a mould he simply can’t fit into – which seems akin to some sort of medieval torture –  leading to frustration and violent outbursts in which he imagines himself as the Incredible Hulk. His only solace is Deaf Club, the only place he can feel himself. Helen (Moira Anne McAuslan) is fitted with a cochlear implant by well-meaning parents, but her description of that experience is a long way from that which the hearing community might fondly imagine.

The piece is bilingual, with the fourth member of the cast, Deborah Pugh, providing translation of the Deaf performers’ signing. Nevertheless, it’s a true ensemble piece with the actors combining action, movement, speech and signs to form something rather beautiful.

The whole takes place in a brightly lit space with a low throbbing soundscape. It’s also a strongly physical performance, the cast forming striking visual images and tableaux. It’s immersive and poetic in the best way, challenging stereotypical viewpoints without feeling preachy: indeed, it’s profoundly moving. The direction from George Mann ensures that one can empathise with the characters on their journey, with a mounting sense of incredulity that such casual cruelty could be inflicted by society. The straightforward story-telling adds power leaving one emotionally drained. A must-see.

Runs until 23 January 2020

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Challenging, moving, beautiful

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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