As a relaxed performance, writer/performer Sophie Woolley describes her appearance for the audio-description and invites audience to walk around and make noise if they need to; and then all hell breaks loose. From the very start, Augmented is an assault on the senses.
Sound is essential to this show, with music and sound effects underscoring the entire performance; an audience would expect no less from a piece written and performed by a woman who has recently become, in her words, a Deaf Cyborg.
Woolley’s story begins with her as a hearing child and she throws herself into the performance as only someone who lived the tale can. The early part of the piece is playful, light and fun; as Woolley describes how to get the attention of a D/deaf mother when you are nine years old- her suggestion is to wave through the kitchen window by the way, if you find yourself in that situation.
As the play progresses and Woolley charts her own hearing loss, the audience experience the cognitive dissonance she describes. Loud music and sound effects interrupt her monologue as the audience literally feel the frustration she is trying to convey. This is particularly effective when she initially discovers that her hearing is severely affected and her heartrate increases rapidly. Adrienne Quartly’s soundtrack amplifies all that Woolley recalls.
There are tender moments, with Woolley playing all of the characters in her own story, especially her Mum, affectionately. Rachel Bagshaw’s direction is clear and powerful in these moments where she recalls struggling with the ignorant treatment of hearing strangers and acquaintances. Woolley’s performance is emotionally intense but truthful. She shares a deep connection with her audience in the small space and forces them to confront their own prejudices against those who navigate the world differently. The performance is angry at times, but completely justified when you consider the patronising comments and behaviour Woolley receives.
This production is clever. The simple but effective set from Laura Hopkins and Khadja Raza features a white split backdrop, onto which are projected colours, images and the creative captions expertly printing themselves onto the screen. Woolley uses minimal props, (a chair, a book, a hat) and the split backdrop is used as a telephone, a rainpipe, a piano. Josh Pharo’s captions go way beyond practical and become, at times, beautiful. The words dance across the backdrop like a shape poem and give emphasis to Woolley’s speech.
Augmented is funnier than I expected it to be; probably because I am not as familiar with Woolley’s writing as I would like, and I will certainly be seeking out her other work now. Impressions of her husband, whom she calls only “Match Boy”, clumsily attempting to sign and the time she was unable to communicate with hero Jon Ronson at a book launch are highlights. There is a self-awareness to Woolley’s work. She regularly uses visual metaphors to describe her experience for those of us who have no experience of cochlear implants; she makes her work accessible to the majority, poignant when we consider that the hearing world did little of that in return.
My favourite – and I consider the most poignant – moment in the entire piece comes when Woolley dances to “secret music” streamed via Bluetooth directly to her implant. The hearing audience experience a form of hearing loss, as we are desperate to find out what song is being danced to.
Augmented has forced me to question my own behaviour around anyone who doesn’t experience the world as I do; which is the highest compliment I can give a piece of theatre.
Augmented was performed and filmed at Salisbury Playhouse before the tour was cancelled due to COVID-19. For more information, visit https://www.giftfestival.co.uk/augmented