Reviews ManchesterNational Published 11 March 2020

Review: Augmented at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

5-7 March, then touring

Sudden cyborg: James Varney writes on Sophie Woolley’s first-person account of losing, and then regaining, her hearing.

James Varney
Sophie Woolley in Augmented at Royal Exchange, Manchester. Design, Laura Hopkins and Khadija Raza; lighting and projection design, Joshua Pharo. Photo: Helen Murray.

Sophie Woolley in Augmented at Royal Exchange, Manchester. Design, Laura Hopkins and Khadija Raza; lighting and projection design, Joshua Pharo. Photo: Helen Murray.

You ever been with a friend when they bump into an acquaintance? They smile and greet each other, maybe handshakes maybe hugs. A little perfunctory catching-up. They don’t introduce you, then before you can introduce yourself, the acquaintance has left. When it happens to me, I get to wondering, are they avoiding introducing me? Is this a protective blanket and, if it is, are they protecting me or them? A conscious or unconscious decision has been made and you are kept apart from the brief interaction. When Augmented begins, Sophie Woolley and her audience have not met before.

Sophie introduces herself as a deaf cyborg. She has a cochlear implant which enables her to hear again. She had hearing when she was young, which gradually deteriorated. Augmented traces her journey more or less linearly as she loses, then suddenly regains her ability to hear. Sophie’s connection to us is tentative, the same quality of shyness as if she were introducing herself at a party. Like when you do not yet know the stakes of your relationship to another person. When we meet strangers, we become a different person by the lens through which they see us. When Sophie regains her hearing members of her family are relieved that the deaf person is gone. They tell her she is actually quite interesting to talk to – as if with the recovery of hearing she has become someone new.

Augmented wrestles with Sophie’s social existence as she moves between the worlds of the deaf and the hearing. Who is Sophie? Is she a hearing woman who has recovered her hearing after losing it? Or is she a deaf woman who has lost her deafness after growing up into it? When people see us, know us, care about us, is that an expression more of themselves than of us? Sophie’s oldest relationship is with her mother, who is also deaf. They speak together using sign supported English, but once Sophie’s hearing comes back she is drawn away from keeping eye contact with her mother by the small noises and distractions in her house. Hearing people cannot handle noise.

Before her operation, she is among a group of friends on holiday, talking around a table. They come to a decision and leave simultaneously without her. She does not know where they have gone. As a deaf woman among hearing, she relies too much on generosity and forethought which do not always come. When Sophie receives her cochlear implant, she is physically altered – augmented – and she functions differently in the world, in her self and in her relationships with other people. All her expectations, and expectations of her, are altered.

Suddenly, Sophie’s world is different. Her new digital hearing is a beautiful discovery. Now, the world changes around her, instead of trying to reshape her into a more useful form. The people in her life project themselves onto her, though. Sophie must become a different person, not because of the new technology in her skull, but because of the new way in which she is seen by those around her.

To Sophie, it feels like cheating to become a different person so quickly. Life has normally happened in increments – her slow loss of hearing – her relationship over years with her now-husband. The journey Sophie is on shifts more suddenly than human stories are supposed to. Sophie finds herself needing to understand her story, needing to place herself on a narrative arc that is being muffled and hidden from her. She has cheated a step – her struggle was over too quickly. Physically, she is a new construction, but socially she is shunted into a strange position, not wholly understood by either world she inhabits. ‘Trauma stabs joy,’ and Sophie struggles inside the contradiction between her social context and her inner feeling.

Sophie finds catharsis in streaming music directly into her head, via her implant. She can do that; she is a cyborg. The audience are made to watch in silence as Sophie dances to a song only she can hear. She finds peace in restlessness. When her husband speaks to her, she scores his words with music, 50/50. In the space between the demands made of her hearing and deaf identities, Sophie remakes herself via a private transhumanism. At the top of the show, Sophie tells a story about as a child needing to get her deaf mother’s attention from behind. Shouting does not work (and is rude) and her mother cannot hear her stamping her foot so she must go out into the garden and wave to her. After Sophie becomes a cyborg, her husband calls her from behind, and she hears him.

For Sophie, being a cyborg is being post-human. She is not a deaf human or a hearing human, but something beyond either of them. Cyborgs can hear us even though we are behind them. It is not our fault we get so confused and distracted by noise. Sophie finds herself, finally, in the construction of an inevitable cyborg human future, in which she is placed. In a small way, Augmented offers a challenge to the normal individualism of solo, autobiographical theatre. Sophie’s journey is placed beyond an individual scale, on a deep timeline of human evolution.

I am optimistic to believe the act of theatre making ought to be naturally post-individual by now. Sophie’s journey is close, specific, serendipitous and individual, but it comes peppered with acknowledgements that the pressures she negotiates are those of a class. When she exceeds the expectations of her roles as ‘deaf,’ ‘hearing,’ ‘woman,’ she encounters walls which encourage her backward. Her conclusion suggests that only through collective knowledge of the impotence of our human bodies can we advance, who knows toward what.

Augmented was at Royal Exchange, Manchester from 5th-7th March. It tours the UK until 25th March. More info here.

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James Varney

James is a writer and theatre maker, based in the middle parts of England. He has created work with Daniel Bye, Josh Coates and Lenni Sanders and had work presented at Derby Theatre, The Royal Exchange, Manchester Literature Festival, Live at LICA and Camden People’s Theatre. James enjoys Peanut Butter, DIY Punk and Long Walks On The Beach.

Review: Augmented at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester Show Info


Directed by Rachel Bagshaw

Written by Sophie Woolley

Cast includes Sophie Woolley

Original Music Adrienne Quartly

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