A very wise actor acquaintance once told me, “Theatre should never be what you expect.” When I go to the theatre, I usually have some kind of idea about the piece’s concept and subject matter, but I had absolutely no preconceptions whatsoever about Not By Bread Alone, a piece devised by Israeli company Nagala’at, in which all the performers are deafblind. It’s a predicament that seems unbearable to those of us fortunate enough to be able to see and hear. Perhaps the most famous deafblind person (or at least the only one I could name off the top of my head) is Helen Keller, who was taught a special sign language by her governess Anne Sullivan through touch. There are plenty of examples of that in this piece, as well as Hebrew, Russian and Israeli sign language, and the English subtitles. It’s slightly surreal, especially when the words are being translated amongst the performers themselves in more ways than is possible to follow.
Nagala’at is the only theatre company of its kind in the world and began life as a two month workshop led by the Swiss born actress and director Adina Tal, but was so successful that it has been running for ten years. The Nalaga’at Centre opened to the public in 2007 in Tel Aviv and this production has been three years in the making.
When entering the auditorium, the audience is greeted by the sight of ten people in a kitchen making bread and one typing away at a typewriter with cheerful music playing. It all looks quite idyllic. The bread itself acts as ‘the taste of nature’ and the purest way of sharing, and therefore communicating. We learn about the loneliness (like being in a foreign country and not knowing the language), the frustration of dependency on others and constantly being interrupted, but there is no self pity and plenty of humour.
I felt that some scenes, such as the Italian episode in homage to the company’s former member and friend Michael who died during the early rehearsal period at the age of 27, could have had a bit more narrative clarity. The simple stories are best, such as the lady who took refuge in fashion magazines when she could see and dreamed of having her hair styled by a famous celebrity hairdresser. This was taken away from her when she lost her sight.
I felt that the most poignant scene was when Genia, the matriarch of the group, expresses her wish to share her love of music and plays her favourite Russian folk song from when she was a little girl and before she lost her hearing. The fact that she can still hear the music through the vibrations seems remarkable and the way in which the performers are alerted to the scene changes through the vibrations of drum beats shows the most extraordinary sensitivity that I imagine most able-bodied people could never achieve.
I cannot praise the performers, director Adina Tal and the interpreters highly enough. I can’t imagine how challenging learning all the blocking must have been. In her extraordinarily emotional speech, Tal comments that “Nothing is impossible.” It is one of those sentiments that is used so often that it has become something of a cliché, but when watching this company, one can only agree.
The performance is accompanied by a pitch-black bar attended by blind waiters and an exhibition of artworks (including paintings, pottery, mosaics, collages, rugs and more) by blind-deaf artists. What I would love to know is how they choose the colours.
Not By Bread Alone is being performed at the Arts Depot in Finchley until July 15th. For more information, please visit their website. Not By Bread Alone is part of Lift Festival. See the full festival line-up here.