sign of the times

A sign of the times with David Ellington, front, and Moira Anne McAuslan left, Matthew Gurney and Deborah Pugh behind. Pictures: Alex Brenner

Extraordinary Wall of Silence

Patrick Studio

Birmingham Hippodrome


Humour me. Switch on your TV, flick through the channels to find a play or a film or a soap, something with people talking, then mute the sound, sit back, with a cup of tea if you want, and then watch for a while.

No idea what is being said, what is going on? That is the everyday world of the profoundly deaf – a world of silence, a world largely without language or communication with most people, and a world largely imposed on them by those who can hear – that’s us, the rest.

Ad Infinitum’s remarkable play has humour, it has drama but above all it has humanity and for those of us who can hear, it has despair at how our fellow travellers have been treated through the ages.

The message comes through loud and clear, deaf people are not disabled, not somehow broken, they are not audiologically challenged, hearing impaired, hard of hearing, non-hearing or any other of the politically correct terms we invent to skirt around the bleedin’ obvious – they are deaf. That’s what they call themselves and it is a word we can all understand.

We can all communicate by the written word, we can all communicate by gesture, a hug, a wave, a handshake, thumbs up, two fingers . . . whatever; the problem comes with language. How do you teach someone born profoundly deaf, someone who cannot hear any sound, to speak, to say words they have never heard using collections of sounds that are alien, making sounds they cannot hear?

The play’s premise, and indeed, if we are honest, simple logic, is that this obsession with teaching the deaf to speak, the drive to make them more like the rest of us – even if they can’t hear the replies - has held back the cause of the deaf for more than a century.

The play soon tells us of the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf - actually, it was the first, but we will let that go - held in Milan in 1880 which declared Oralism, speech therapy and the like, was superior to manual education, the clunky description of sign language, and promptly banned signing and the teaching of signing in schools, a ban taken up by much of Europe and the USA.

The same congress meeting 110 years later apologised, accepting the ban was discriminatory and a violation of human and constitutional rights.

Apparently, children educated by Oralism leave school with an average reading age of eight – those who learn and are taught by signing leave with an average reading age the same as the rest of the school population.

The cast of four bring out highlights . . . and lowlights . . . of what discrimination, abuse and lack of understanding deaf people face and have faced based on more than 40 hours of interviews with deaf people.

Out of those they created composite characters Alan, Graham and Helen. Alan faces a normal school where he is in an impaired hearing class – a class where he will never hear a word in a school with a head who has a penchant for sexual abuse – after all, who can a deaf kid who can’t speak complain to?


A moment of anguish with Moira Anne McAuslan with David Ellington and Deborah Pugh behind

His ultra-religious father see’s Alan’s deafness not as something to accept and a challenge to overcome, but as a punishment on him, the father, for past sins. Alan is not a son, he is a punishment, a sign of God’s displeasure. As he becomes older Alan identifies as being gay, which only doubles his propensity for discrimination.

Graham is forced into speech therapy uttering sounds he cannot hear so has no idea how to articulate them properly, he finds a deaf club, where he learns signing, finds a job and even a girlfriend, a girl who can hear – but that doesn’t last . . . and sex is a problem, she wanting the romantic intimacy of darkness, he needing light to speak, a drawback of signing.

Graham was sacked on his birthday, a day after a day-long cruel practical joke by his workmates. He was to survive his birthday suicide attempt though, jumping off his workplace roof and breaking pretty much every bone worth a mention. Earned him a year of recovery.

Helen has the cutting edge solution of a cochlear implant, around £25,000 a pop these days, electronic gizmos implanted behind the ear which, with an external microphone and transmitter, convert sound to digital impulses sent to electrodes placed around the auditory nerve sending signals to the brain which learns to interpret them as sound.

Implants can restore hearing to many, but not Helen, who had never heard sound, and neither had her brain. She could hear words at first but to her and her brain the implant just became noise, relentless, deafening noise until, blessed relief, it was removed.

The play does not demonise implants which can and do change the lives of many, it just points out they are not the magic solution for everyone.

Helen, who then had to learn signing so she could communicate, ended up marrying Graham and they had a daughter Bethan, who, it turns out is also profoundly deaf. It was discovered in a hospital which, despite testing automatically for deafness in the offspring of the deaf, still could not find a way to communicate the test effectively with those who could not hear, no signing or at the very least a printed explanation of what was happening.

An implant was suggested but Helen objected, she had already travelled that route, and wanted Bethan to make her own decision when she was old enough.

speech therapy

Deborah Pugh as the therapist trying to make Matthew Gurney's composite character Graham speak

Facts are dropped in almost as throwaway lines. Alexander Graham Bell, for example, inventor of the telephone, was a devout Oralist and promoter of Eugenics suggesting laws to control marriage, and particularly intermarriage of deaf people in a crude breeding programme he said would eradicate deafness.

In the 1930s until their defeat the Nazis made the deaf wear black triangles and subjected them to forced sterilisation with euthanasia another solution to the problem of anyone deemed "Hereditarly Diseased".

The coming of age stories, the violence, discrimination, being treated as somehow inferior, broken, even stupid, are told beautifully by three deaf actors, David Ellington, Matthew Gurney and Moira Anne McAuslan who tell their tales through British Sign Language – note the last, important, word – while a hearing actor, Deborah Pugh, articulates in words.

It is a juxtaposition of the norm. In theatre for a signed performance the BSL interpreter is usually at the side of the stage, as unobtrusive as possible, with the actors talking on the set. Here the deaf actors speak through signing, it is their play, their story, with the words a sort of audible translation, a sort of British Spoken Language, overlaid for those who can hear.

It is a play which questions so much, for instance, language does not need the validity of speech to be heard, signing is just as articulate, just as much a language, just as much a means of communication.

The suggestion is made that signing should be taught in every school – those against could point out that the majority of people never know, or even meet deaf people; perhaps if we spoke the same language we might – it would be a major barrier to understanding each other being removed.

Anno Orton’s set is an angular perspective box cleverly lit by Jo Palmer to give shadow silhouettes on the stark side walls, varying distances giving looming giants or tiny figures in focus, the perspective making actors seem larger or smaller as roles and scenes develop.

Director George Mann keeps up a galloping pace for it’s 80 unbroken minutes with the cast in constant movement, I suspect choreographed by Pugh.

This is theatre which defies conventional labelling, it questions our perceptions of deafness, of deaf people, of a deaf community most of us know nothing about, people who live among us unseen and unheard. Ad Infinitum have created a chink in the extraordinary wall with an extraordinary production. After 80 minutes everything you have seen, thought and listened to remains and goes with you - the silence has spoken loud and clear.

Roger Clarke


Tour dates

28 Jan Nottingham Lakeside Arts, University of Nottingham, University Park, Nottingham NG7 2RD 0115 846 7777

30 - 31 Jan The North Wall, South Parade, Oxford OX2 7JN. 01865 319450

3 Feb Edge Hill Arts Centre, Lancashire, Edge Hill University, St Helens Road, Ormskirk L39 4QP. 01695 584480

5 - 6 Feb Corn Exchange, Market Pl, Newbury RG14 5BD. 0845 5218 218.

7 Feb Arts at Stowe, Stowe School, Stowe House Preservation Trust, Stowe, Buckingham, MK18 5EH. 01280 818012.

12-22 Feb, HOME, 2 Tony Wilson Place, First Street, Manchester, M15 4FN. Box Office 0161 200 1500.

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