As the audience clamber to their seats in the Yard Theatre’s charmingly erratic auditorium, a silent home movie plays on a loop in the background. We momentarily catch glimpses of a New Zealand childhood: children chattering and playing in a garden, a family gathered round a table.
The upbringing depicted by these home movies is slightly removed from the norm. People of the Eye takes as it inspiration the experience of a deaf childhood and runs with this theme to create an arresting, immersive and startlingly original piece of theatre. Written by and co-staring Erin Siobhan Hutching, whose family’s experiences the work draws on, along with director Jennifer K Bates, the play marks the Deaf and Hearing Ensemble’s most ambitious project to date.
The play presents a loose series of vignettes in roughly chronological order; from the moment the protagonist’s mother finds out she is pregnant, via birth, the realisation of her daughter’s deafness, the medicalisation of this deafness, through to the child’s negotiation of family and school life. These are highly personal and emotional scenes- the taunts of children in the school playground echo around the theatre- but they are counterbalanced by moments of levity; my personal favourite being a hilarious parody of a children’s sign language instruction video.
But People of the Eye is more than a simple narration of an unusual childhood. The audience is not merely presented with a depiction of deafness, but actively drawn into this experience. The work reorients the world to a deaf perspective, and through a befuddling mixture of sound, image, text and physical theatre captures something, for a hearing audience at least, of the experiences of the central character.
This effect points to the duality running through the work: between the two characters, between the hearing and deaf worlds and between the visual and auditory aspects of the work’s staging. One of its most fascinating features is how it treads a line between visual representation, in the form of sign language, flawless computer animation and subtitles, and an auditory portrayal of the action in the form of spoken word, cacophonous sounds and white noise. Consequently, there are two ways of experiencing the production- as a hearing person and as a deaf person. This review is from a hearing perspective, but, tantalisingly, it contains a whole layer of meaning only accessible to those who can sign, which only adds to its fascination.
People of the Eye, therefore is both about an individual experience of deafness and a commentary on how the rest of society treats the deaf. It brings in sharp relief the idea that it is an “illness to be cured” and allows a hearing audience to taste, if only fleetingly, something of this world through a beautiful, tightly choreographed spectacle. Add a touch of humour and near flawless performances from Howlett and Hutchings, and you have something very special indeed.
People of the Eye is playing at the Yard Theatre until 11 June before a run at the Edinburgh Fringe. For more information and tickets, see The Yard Theatre website.