Review: Extraordinary Wall of Silence, HOME Manchester

With such a regular focus on the oral performance in theatre – always interested in the details of the delivery of a line – Ad Infinitum’s creative use of the medium to give voice to the deaf community may seem like a radical intervention. However, the message inculcated by the cast of mainly deaf artists through their provocative and insightful performance is for respect as a normality rather than an imperfection.

The production uses a verbatim style built from interviews with deaf people, segmented into episodes dedicated to their individual stories. The actors show how the difficulties of social interaction in an audiocentric society impact upon relationships with ignorant or intolerant parents, friends, colleagues and romantic partners. It accumulates an insidious series of micro and macro aggressions to convey their exasperation without becoming a bluster of righteous anger.

Deborah Pugh is the show’s BSL interpreter, an active participant who embodies the authority figures the characters resist against, while enabling our accessibility without dominating the deaf actors; she’s our conduit, but it’s their piece. David Ellington, Matthew Gurney and Moira Anne McAuslan inhabit all the various deaf roles from history to the present day, using sign language to show how their patent ability to communicate has been constantly dismissed. It would cohere better, however, with a more fluid link between the sections so they feel less like disjointed extracts from a textbook.

Its brilliantly vivid and vibrant design enhances the sensory experience. A hazy spectrum of neon colours dance together in the background – personalities saturating the otherwise blank wall – or soak the stage during moments of crisis. Sam Halmarack’s throbbing soundtrack, a disorienting medley of thumping bass, synth growls and shuddering vibrations, immerses us inside a whirring cochlear implant. Set designer Anna Orton’s concave arrangement of panels illustrates the confinement of the deaf by the insensitive system which defines them by ‘hearing loss’.

While the intensity of the design creates the sense of noise and oppression – microphones register every breath like an ASMR video – silence itself is underused as sound and music try to heighten every emotional moment. The combination of physical theatre and a visceral design to explore disability owes a debt to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. This is on a smaller scale suited to the reality of its historical and factual characters, as well as underscoring the performers’ wish to be seen as normal people.

The show not only meets its ambitions of theatrical creativity, but also the controlled emotional force to break the wall of ignorance which has silenced their experience. If you need proof that theatre can change your perspective on the modern world, this is surely it.

Extraordinary Wall of Silence is playing at HOME Manchester until 22 February. For more information and tickets, visit the HOME Manchester website.