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Review: Extraordinary Wall [Of Silence] (Bristol Old Vic)

Ad Infinitum tells three coming of age stories from individuals in the Deaf community

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The cast of Extraordinary Wall [of Silence]
© Matt Cawrey

There are three languages central to Theatre Ad Infinitum's new piece: spoken language, physical language and British Sign Language. But rather than presenting a confusing cacophony of voices, the interaction between all three proves an engaging way of storytelling, one that offers refreshing insight into the several different worlds we see onstage.

Extraordinary Wall [of Silence] features three stories, Helen's, Alan's and Graham's. Their tales were originally taken from interviews with Deaf people throughout the UK but were then patched and pieced together into new ones for reasons of anonymity. Interjecting between the stories are facts and context about the way the hearing world has regularly tried to stamp out the emergence of a non-verbal language for Deaf people. In 1880 in Italy, at what's known as the Milan Conference, it was decided that oralism – or oral education – was superior and that sign language must be banned in schools.

Understanding that is key to understanding the progress, or otherwise, of Deaf education. The three stories have this moment hang over them and what happens to the characters is of direct consequence of being forced to learn using techniques that were at best misunderstanding the needs of Deaf pupils, at worst wilfully playing against their strengths.

The stories stretch from the 70s through to the present day, first following Graham's childhood in a guilt-ridden religious household, where he was sent to a speaking school, ridiculed by his fellow students and punished by the teachers. Then Hannah, who is operated on at age two and fitted with a cochlear implant which gives her constant tinnitus and makes the guitar, which her father would love her to play, an agony on her ears. Then Alan, who comes from a Deaf family and goes to Deaf club and whose first job working for a company that sacks him on his birthday drives him to consider suicide. Their worlds mirror, collide and intertwine with each other.

Ad Infinitum is a company known for its physical storytelling, which here proves the perfect medium. The four performers tell the story by enhancing gestures and movement and they weave BSL and spoken language equally into the piece. For anyone who doesn't sign, it is a deft demonstration of how language is not limited to voice.

Sam Halmarack's sound and composition is also very good, adding to the narrative and offering a sense of the internal turmoil felt by the characters. The ensemble performers are all dedicated and convincing and it's really the fairly simplistic script that lets the piece down somewhat. While the stories are engrossing, the creativity is ploughed into the way of telling rather than what's being said and occasionally the play feels a little staid.

That said, Extraordinary Wall [of Silence] does brilliantly well at making the counter argument that was never allowed to be made at the Milan Conference – that Deaf culture and Deaf education must be recognised as valid, and that the forcing of hearing education, social norms and culture onto those that don't need it is horribly harmful.