Contractions is a short but sharp play that, not unlike Mike Bartlett’s other one act The Bull, is about bullying in a business setting. Deafinitely Theatre adapt the work for both hearing and deaf audiences, and place it in a site-specific setting in New Diorama’s new performance space, ND2.
The space is a sort of corporate coliseum, the stage in the central area of a massive office building. Five floors of windows into individual departments and censored fluorescent lights surround the oppressive space. Evocative and alienating, the space works remarkably well. And with Chris Bartholomew’s music, the atmosphere becomes more and more claustrophobic as a nameless manager abuses her power over an employee.
Deafinitely Theatre creates bilingual productions for both hearing and deaf audiences. Both BSL and English are used throughout the play, but neither is used at all times. Director Paula Garfield chooses to switch between both languages, evoking the difficulty of communication in office settings. And when at times asking for clarification can be a disheartening and disempowering experience, it also demonstrates how communication itself can be structured through power dynamics.
Fifi Garfield’s The Manager communicates solely in BSL, whereas Emma, her employee, oscillates between the two. Emma (Abigail Poulton) often reflects back what The Manager has said, partially for the hearing audience. It’s a smart decision that, although occasionally a bit repetitive, disempowers Poulton’s Emma, her disbelief and distress increasing with each clarification. Other methods of communication are used as well: Garfield brilliantly uses a whiteboard with an intensely patronizing attitude. Less successful and more confusing is her later use of a tape recorder as a surrogate for her voice; it jars with the previous scenes and sets the rhythm of the dialogue off balance.
The play itself is intentionally a bit implausible, with The Manager’s behaviour towards Emma becoming almost ludicrously evil. Most frustratingly, it never becomes clear why The Manager choose to bully Emma. And while the reason might be that she simply can in such rigidly hierarchical structures, the dramatic intrigue suffers without a fully developed relationship between the two, even with Garfield and Poulton giving two strong performances.
Intrinsic to Contractions is the understanding that some things will be lost in translation: deaf and hearing audiences will understand different parts of the play at different times. But beneath both languages something else is being conveyed. Bartlett’s absurdist play serves as a warning about the dangerous power imbalances that can occur in work settings, and how easy it is to take advantage of them.
Contractions is on at New Diorama until 29th November. Book tickets here.