Theatre is always an act of communication: across the lines dividing audience and performer, information is transmitted (both ways). There are instances in Mr and Mrs Clark’s latest performance, a collaboration with deaf performer, artist and teacher Jonny Cotsen, when this information is partial, interrupted, or unavailable. At one point, Cotsen gets us to try to lip-read a series of videos. Didn’t get it the first time? We have another go. Still no luck? Tough, moving on (I like to imagine these videos contain some incredibly important revelation, a secret dramaturgical key). Later, Cotsen has conversations with audiences members who use BSL – suddenly, there are these new, narrow channels of communication, inaccessible to the rest of us. I enjoy these moments – they’re gently disruptive in a playful way. There is the performer’s world and the audience’s world (or maybe more accurately the spectators’), and the hearing and non-hearing worlds. They all overlap each other, but information travels differently between them.
For the most part, though, Louder is Not Always Clearer is interested, first and foremost, in clarity. The text is flatly prosaic, a collection of simple statements and questions typed out into a word processor and relayed live onto a screen. Cotsen finishes every other sentence with an exclamation mark. It comes across as both earnest – like Cotsen is simply overjoyed to be here, sharing his story with us – and teacherly.
A pedagogical approach is a tricky one to navigate in theatre (especially, perhaps, in autobiographical theatre), too often breeding a situation in which an audience’s capacity to co-author meaning is reduced to an ‘I learnt something new today’ objective-to-be-achieved, and complex issues are simplified into messages that can be disseminated like arrows or flu jabs. Here, we learn that Cotsen always has sex with the lights on, because otherwise he can’t lip-read. We learn that he wanted a karaoke party for his 10th birthday, but that no-one wanted him to sing for fear of embarrassment (his or theirs?). We see a series of insensitive interactions which reveal ignorant assumptions about D/deaf people (the main one being that deafness = stupidity). This is all potentially enlightening for audiences (though, perhaps more so for hearing ones than D/deaf), but they’re statements which end in full stops. So what next? Cotsen has a warm, easy stage presence that feels really genuine and inviting, so the performance never feels like a lecture. But the mode of autobiographical experience-telling still feels limiting – its language too direct, its conclusions self-evident.
The piece becomes thornier when we hear an audio recording of an interview with Cotsen’s mother. She recounts her determination for her son to assimilate at school, not to be any different from the other kids. He did not go to a D/deaf school, and learnt to speak and lip-read. She did not want to him to learn BSL, and did not, she says, even think of him as deaf. Listening to this, I expect a turn; for her to say that she sees now that the desire for assimilation paints deafness as an impairment, and that the non-hearing world is just as valid a place to live. But the turn never comes. His mother believes in the decisions she made. She sees the outgoing, independent, happy man Jonny is now and thinks, I must have done the right thing.
The performance, remarkably, doesn’t presume to judge her. Cotsen doesn’t show any resentment towards his mother, nor does he endorse what she says. Instead, he draws (he trained in Fine Art): charcoal on paper, a picture of two large hands underneath a kind of surface supporting… buildings? Plumes of smoke? And wispy tendrils burrowing down under the surface towards the hands. A small reservoir of poetry in a performance otherwise uninterested in lyricism, endlessly interpretable and enigmatic (I think he draws a different picture each performance). Later, Cotsen paints over the drawing with thick red acrylic: ‘DEAF NOT STUPID’. Maybe sometimes, when you’re trying to get a message across, you just have to be clear.
Louder is Not Always Clearer was at Bristol Old Vic from 13-15 May. It tours to Pencoed and Edinburgh in May and August. More info here.