Sarah Smith: Hear No Evil

Sarah Smith
Edinburgh International Book Festival

Sarah Smith

Continuing its strand of creating short, experimental dramatic performances from novels, the Book Festival has put together a creative team of both deaf and hearing artists to bring to life Sarah Smith’s debut novel based on a true story. The performance lasted for half an hour, with a Q&A involving Smith and the performers and directors making up the hour.

Jean Campbell (played by Irina Vartopeanu) was a single mother living in Glasgow who was, in the terminology of the time, ‘deaf and dumb’. In 1817, she was accused of murder when her child drowned in the Clyde, written off by the judge, Lord Succoth (Tom McGovern) as “a dirty, stupid hoor from the Glasgow slums.” Robert Kinniburgh (Connor Bryson) is brought in to try to communicate with her to assess whether she is able to understand what she has done and the consequences of her actions and is therefore fit to plead.

The staging has condensed the book's essential story into half an hour, flitting between the judge's chambers, where he hears from various witnesses who mostly claim they saw Jean throw her baby into the water, and Kinniburgh in Jean's cell, trying to communicate through a combination of the signing that he teaches and what she has learned from the Deaf Church in Glasgow. He manages to get from her her own story, not just of this incident but of her life, with both happier and more trying times, not at all matching Succoth's assessment of her.

This is communicated to the audience in a combination of ways: a signer, Catherine King, interprets Succoth's words, while the conversation in the cell is part-signed and part-spoken, interpreted for both deaf and hearing audiences with surtitles. The way it is done makes it feel integral to the performance, not an addition or an afterthought, and is very physical and performative. At the climax of the story, Jean signs "captions off", and she passionately tells her version of the incident, stood centre-stage, entirely through signing, and we all understand her.

This was a scratch performance—director Mark Stevenson, associate director Moira Anne McAuslan—and so some of the events happen a little too quickly and with not enough detail, and the switching between scenes was far too slow and needs to be much slicker, but the actors gave full, emotional performances in costume without books that were enough to show that there is a lot of potential here for expanding this into a full production.

It was also great to see both deaf and hearing audiences mixed together on an equal level in a Q&A that was actually dominated by questions from deaf audience members that were asked using BSL, which were then interpreted in speech for the benefit of the non-signers.

Reviewer: David Chadderton