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Extraordinary Wall [of Silence]

The Company
Ad infinitum and HOME
HOME, Manchester

Extraordinary Wall of Silence Credit: Alex Brenner
Extraordinary Wall of Silence Credit: Alex Brenner
Extraordinary Wall of Silence Credit: Alex Brenner

You never know what you’re going to get with shows produced by Ad infinitum. They are always of a high quality but the subjects might be personal to the producers, of general interest or inspired by a specific group. Extraordinary Wall of Silence falls into the final category.

Extraordinary Wall of Silence opens with the troupe (David Ellington, Matthew Gurney, Moira Anne McAuslan and Deborah Pugh who devised the play) facing the audience in a confrontational manner. It is an appropriate beginning for a show with a challenging atmosphere of militant anger. The gay community has taken back the previously offensive word ‘queer’ and Ad infinitum argues the same should now apply to the word ‘deaf’. The Company reject polite phrases like ’hard of hearing’ arguing that deafness is not a disability or a limitation and treatments like implants or hearing aids along with communication methods such as lip reading are less effective than British Sign Language. The play provides plenty of evidence to support this viewpoint—deaf people taught using only speech and written language have a reading age of eight upon leaving school. There is a sense, therefore, of a community rejecting methods imposed upon them.

The show merges historical detail—the teaching of sign language was banned in deaf schools from 1880—with three coming-of-age stories. Alan is profoundly deaf, his religious father regards this condition as a punishment for past sins and Alan’s confusion about his sexuality does not help the tense situation. Graham comes from a family of deaf people and is an active member of the deaf community but struggles to cope in the wider world. Helen has had an implant and cannot convince her parents the effect is to let her hear only unintelligible sounds and painful noise. She hears the noise made by a guitar rather than the music it produces.

Extraordinary Wall of Silence is told verbally, in British Sign Language (BSL) and in mime / dance. Visually the show is striking; Anna Orton’s set giving an illusion of depth by receding into the distance. Sign language merges with mime to produce some tormented poses illustrating the emotional state of mind of the characters. The examples shown of the techniques used to teach deaf people to speak are horribly fascinating to watch—looking like indoctrination bordering on torture.

It soon becomes clear why the word ‘silence’ is struck out of the title—this is a play full of talking. When plays use physical storytelling techniques such as dance and mime, they take priority and verbal communication is usually limited to the occasional remark or explanatory sequence. That is most definitely not the case with Extraordinary Wall of Silence. Perhaps director George Mann is concerned physical movement will not communicate the complex arguments or does not want to waste the considerable research that has been undertaken.

Maybe Mann simply wants to replicate verbally what is being said in BSL but the approach starts to feel heavy-handed. One of the performers speaks throughout acting as narrator / lecturer, articulating the concerns of the characters and setting out explanatory material. It makes points effectively but overshadows the physical movements of the cast.

The lengthy spoken passages dominate the physical movements in the play. The argument that deaf people are content in their own communities and deaf clubs is worryingly isolationist—many groups in society could argue they feel happy only when mixing with like-minded people. Yet Extraordinary Wall of Silence remains a thought-provoking powerful play on a subject never previously explored and is a welcome means of prompting discussion.

Reviewer: David Cunningham