There are aspects of this production that I am just not equipped to review thoroughly. Inspired by interviews with people around the UK, Extraordinary Wall of Silence explores the challenges faced by the Deaf community, faced with a society ordered around the spoken word. It is performed by three performers signing in BSL and one speaking in English. Obviously in any bilingual production there are nuances that are lost if you understand only one of the languages, but here the differences between English and BSL are intrinsically wrapped in both the stories that the show covers, and in its form. Throughout, Theatre Ad Infinitum’s characteristic stylised movement is woven together with the BSL, and I’m afraid I can’t describe how or whether this affects the meaning and tone it creates.
From a hearing perspective it felt like the different forms of communication are combined seamlessly. There is rarely any moment where information isn’t simultaneously communicated in both languages, making the moments where it isn’t even more meaningful, whether it’s showing barriers, or solidarity, or miscommunication. Interestingly, the most traumatic moments are neither signed nor spoken, but acted out in a mix of dance and gesture, making them all the more horrifying.
The show is masterful in the way it puts together personal testimony and historical context to show how Deaf experiences have been shaped by societal attitudes to speech and hearing. It is particularly powerful in the way that it resists and rebels against narratives that can often pervade histories of injustice, difference or disability; ones of progress, of triumph over bigotry, of ‘cures’. Instead Extraordinary Wall of Silence shows the cycle of Deaf achievement and culture limited or destroyed by the hearing world, often by the very changes being hailed as progress. And it makes very clear that this cycle and history is still ongoing. While the show details the unnecessary barriers caused by a focus on oralism (educating deaf children through spoken English using lip reading and speech therapy) brought about by the Milan conference of 1880, it also confronts the problems caused by cochlear implants, and ends by focusing on the development of gene therapy. The show also draws links between discrimination against the Deaf and other forms of injustice – from how narratives around civilisation and barbarism developed to describe Deaf people who didn’t speak were then used to justify colonialism, to how trying to force Deaf children to speak a language they can’t communicate in opens them up to abuse.
But I don’t want to portray the show as a voyeuristic gallery of suffering, or a shopping list of injustice. It creates believable, nuanced stories for compelling characters. As well as exploring difficulties and discrimination, it brings out the humour that comes from cultural differences, and shows the solidarity of the Deaf community. There’s a particular focus on Deaf Clubs as places of understanding, and even healing, emphasising what a loss their declining numbers are.
The cast make a smooth ensemble, with each performer slipping in and out of different characters for each tale, and almost all speech being voiced by Deborah Pugh. Among all this change the central characters are strong lynchpins; David Ellington’s tragic Alan, Moira Anne McAuslan’s conflicted Helen, and particularly Matthew Gurney’s Graham, in a performance that is just as compelling when exploring the difference between Deafness and Deafhood as it is when describing one of the Incredible Hulk’s adventures.
The play’s title – Extraordinary Wall of Silence – refers to the press’s reaction to the revelation that oralism holds back children’s education. The stories told here are a powerful and nuanced push back against this silence. At a time when Facebook walls are filled with ‘inspiring’ videos of those with cochlear implants hearing for the first time, and attempts to get Deaf children to speak rather than sign continue, this show is an important portrait of a community and culture that continues to fight against ignorance and discrimination.
of Silence is at the Bristol Old Vic until 19th October. More info here.