Extraordinary Wall of Silence at Bristol Old Vic
Angry! Divisive! Offensive! Brutal! Petulant! Moaning! Justified! Righteous! Essential… These are words that have over the years been used by the mainstream of society to describe the various small minority groups which dared to raise their fist to the sky in a demand for understanding, acceptance and equality. It does not matter if that group is based in ethnicity, gender, sexuality or physical condition, the ‘ordinary’, normal, vocal norms of society will often refuse to understand, let along make the small, often easy, changes that it would take to make life easier for each minority group to survive in an otherwise hostile feeling world.
Tonight, many of these words can be used to describe what I experienced on stage as four performers portrayed the stories of three human beings who grew up deaf in the UK. These stories contain heart ache, physical and sexual abuse and isolation and I would argue of them all, the isolation is the one that is most harmful to the individual. We take it for granted that modern world allows for deaf consumers, it is only when you actually have a need for subtitles on your movies, but find that they are not included on the DVD, or when you realise that travel service announcements or fire alarms are audible and you can’t hear them, that you begin to question if society cares about you. Actually, when was the last time you saw an air stewardess who could sign the emergency procedure; do they even exist, because I have never seen one? I noticed for the first time this week that located on the cash point outside my local supermarket is a device to sync the ATM with a hearing aid; how long have they been there?
The three stories by theatre company Ad Infititum were told through movement, dance and signing, it showed the awful treatment of deaf children born in the UK since 1960 to the modern day and how they are viewed as defective in society because they lack the ability to hear sound. Various methods of coping were portrayed that ranged from prayer, to acceptance to medical intervention and, in each case, we witnessed some truly awful scenarios that depicted bullying, child rape and suicide. This was not relaxing post dinner drinks and theatre. This was hard hitting, excruciating storytelling, all with a lovely voice over for those ‘few’ in the audience who like myself could not speak the same language as the performer (my sign language is based in Makaton and was devised for me to be able to communicate with people with learning difficulties). Without that spoken track, many of the people present in the theatre may well have sat there bewildered rather than horrified by the events on stage.
One of the stories in particular I was able to identify with, was about a person named Alan who was a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Alan grows up in a brutal regime of religious indoctrination at home with his violent un-accepting father who believes that his deafness can be cured by prayer. At school Alan is horribly bullied for not being able to communicate with his classmates. When he fights back, he is punished by his uncaring teacher and sent to see the head teacher, who in a horrific turn of events rapes him, knowing that he cannot speak out. When teenage Alan is left home alone, Alan experiments with his Mother’s make up and clothing, only to be discovered wearing said dress and make up by his father who beats ferociously. At this point I could feel the isolation and the suffering of Alan, as do far too many of us LGBTQ+ adults who grew up in the sixties, seventies and eighties. As a side note, the global death rates for trans people (which it is not entirely clear if this includes Alan too, although he does wear a dress and make up to go out to his first gay club) are still horrifyingly high even in this modern age and with the anti-trans agenda of President Trump and some anti-trans feminist groups, this can only get worse and more dangerous for trans people of all genders.
The story of Graham fared a little better, he was still brutalised at school, horribly bullied and ending up trying to end his life by jumping from a high building. He did find some peace and acceptance though when he started working with as a researcher at a University that had begun to study the literacy levels of deaf students. The results they found were depressingly obvious and this play is part of that result.
The story of Helen is in so many ways heart breaking for different reasons, but the depiction of fitting a cochlear implant using a melon as a head and a set of household DIY tools as surgical instruments was for me a step too far and I started to feel numbed to the events on stage. This felt more like the need to further horrify than tell a compelling story. Much of what followed was seeing her righteous anger, shouting out her personal stories of pain and suffering that went unmentioned for years because of her fear of hurting her parents who blundered so painfully hard to make their ‘defective’ daughter ‘normal’. I think that Helen may have tried to end her life too, but I was too emotionally over drawn to follow it clearly by this point in the play.
With so much horror and so much suffering and so much sadness, it is hard to say that I enjoyed Extraordinary Wall of Silence. If I am honest, I left the show feeling momentarily angry and hurt, which was probably the point they wanted to make. My own experience with a speech and language therapist was far kinder, but then this was in the early two thousands and hopefully the treatment of deaf people has improved yet more. However, I found myself at odds with them when they stated that Doctors disregard deaf culture. Maybe this misunderstanding was made in good intentions, but it showed a lack of good will on both sides, or maybe this was my bias as a person who hears too much and has learned how to filter away most of the back ground noise of society. You would be amazed at how much I yearn for a silent room when I get home tired and how often I wear ear plugs when I am out because of the painfully overwhelming sound levels of the average shopping market. Deaf culture has so many factions that most people will be unaware of and it is not just those who live in perpetual silence.
The divides that exist between deaf culture and the mainstream are indeed wide. I do agree with the earnest point made at the end of the production that sign language should be taught to all people, because how many times in a loud environment would it be good if everyone could still communicate? Trust me, that person who sits quietly at the table in the pub may not be silent for any reason other than they simply cannot hear you speak and you probably never noticed. Wouldn’t it be amazing if, as we aged, we could still communicate with Granny without her needing loud uncomfortable back feeding hearing aids and the continual shouting in her ear? Society has a long way to go in making it better for minority groups, especially those for whom the medical profession are deemed the experts who can fix them. It was not so long ago that LGBTQ+ people like the heroic Alan Turing were considered criminals and perverts who also needed to be sterilised. How long ago was it that people with autism spectrum disorders were considered brain impaired and should be kept away from society for their own benefit?
Can I in good conscience tell you to stay away from Extraordinary Wall of Silence? No, I absolutely cannot and nor must I do so. This play is beautifully acted, each performer is fantastically talented and even with a stage that contains basically nothing but light, the viewer is dragged along for the whole harrowing journey. Be warned though, this is not light entertainment, this is not gentle feel good theatre. This is a gaping wound in the heart and a bloody knife in an evidence locker. This is a clarion call to arms, a justified raging scream for acceptance and inclusion and as such these stories need to be told, but they will leave you feeling bruised, especially if you are not the member of a minority group.
Extraordinary Wall of Silence shows at Bristol Old Vic until 19th October