In 1880, a conference was held in Milan that had serious repercussions for the deaf community and its impact is still being felt to the present day. At the International Congress on Education of the Deaf, a law was passed that banned sign language from being taught in schools. Oralism was seen as a superior form of communication so speech therapy was enforced as a method of education for the deaf. This was supported by Alexander Graham Bell, who encouraged oralism, viewing deafness as something that should be eradicated.
This deeply flawed decision in 1880 caused dangerous ramifications, including discrimination, exclusion, and the violation of human rights. Crucially, it installed the mentality that deafness is something to be cured, an ideology that has perpetuated with the invention of hearing aids and cochlear implants.
Ad Infinitum‘s Extraordinary Wall
of Silence is constructed from over 40 hours of interviews with deaf people. By blending physical theatre with oration and British Sign Language (BSL), three powerful stories are told, which all have moments of poignancy, amusement, and tragedy, with each story being hugely inspirational.
The first thing that strikes you about Extraordinary Wall
of Silence is Anna Orton‘s arresting black and white set design, which resembles an optical illusion, adding remarkable depth and space to a studio theatre.
The stage is brightly lit by Jo Palmer, ensuring that each performer’s movements and BSL can be clearly seen by the audience. The importance of such lighting is something that I have never considered before. I simply took it for granted. It is wonderfully emphasised in Graham’s story, portrayed by Matthew Gurney, as a sexual encounter with his girlfriend goes amiss because she turns the light off; deftly using comedy to depict the significance of light when having to communicate through BSL and lip reading.
The three stories told in Extraordinary Wall
of Silence chronologically take us through the 20th century, providing an enlightening history lesson, yet also exposing how impaired attitudes towards the deaf community haven’t changed much over this time. Deafness is still misunderstood, and the misguided helpfulness of hearing people can be dangerous.
David Ellington performs Alan’s deeply moving story with beautifully expressive movement, encapsulating his traumatic childhood. His Christian father resented having a deaf child, believing it to be punishment from God for his sins. Beaten and abused by his father, school isn’t much better. For the first five years of his life, he had no language at all. When he met Sophie, she changed his life. “Sophie gave me language”. This friendship is entirely endearing, making Alan’s torturous life at home almost unbearable to witness; a situation exacerbated when Alan struggles with his sexuality.
Graham’s story is one that juxtaposes humour with pathos and shows the importance of deaf clubs. Vitally building a sense of community, deaf clubs also provide opportunities for people to learn sign language. Deaf clubs quite literally saved Graham’s life. Sadly, their number has dramatically declined in recent years, as a result of austerity budget cuts.
Moira Anne McAustin depicts the devastating impact that cochlear implants can have, in Helen’s story. Keen to stress that hers is a singular case, and that everybody reacts differently to implants, McAustin’s Helen is bursting with rage and suffers extreme pain and ringing in her ears as a result. Her parents believed that the implant would be a cure, but it made Helen’s life a misery.
The procedure of installing a cochlear implant is rendered through powerful imagery, using a watermelon as a dramatically striking metaphor for the human brain. A hugely disturbing image, this raises moral questions about whether children should be subjected to this procedure, without their consent. Not only is it intrusive, it could also deprive them of their deaf identity, like Helen. Thankfully, deaf football club helped her reclaim it.
of Silence is a beautifully expressive, impactful piece of theatre that is enlightening, powerful, and thought-provoking. I took a lot away from this. Teaching me a great deal about deafness, it will definitely stay in my mind for a long time.
Watching deaf stories performed on stage is a breath of fresh air. It needs to be done more often.