Ad Infinitum’s Extraordinary Wall [of Silence] opens with an arresting history lesson. In 1880, the performers tell us, the Milan Conference ruled that sign language should be banned in Deaf schools. Instead, Deaf children would be taught by hearing teachers solely through speech and written language.
The show draws on interviews with members of the Deaf community to demonstrate the human repercussions of such prejudiced policies. The stories of three composite characters, Alan, Graham and Helen, are interwoven with Deaf history and hearing attitudes towards deafness.
Denied the opportunity to learn sign language, Alan (David Ellington) is unable to communicate the abuse he suffers. Graham (a buoyant Matthew Gurney) finds speech therapy torturous but discovers community in Deaf Club. Helen (Moira Anne McAuslan), who was given cochlear implants as a baby, gradually learns to accept her Deaf identity.
The show is bilingual throughout, the performers’ use of British Sign Language accompanied by an English voiceover. Complementing both is Ad Infinitum’s trademark physical theatre, which brings the stories and the company members together as one body. The eloquence of the performers’ gestures provides a powerful retort to a society that privileges spoken language.
Anna Orton’s design is starkly effective. White flats box in the performers, the back wall illuminated in washes of pink, purple and blue in Jo Palmer’s lighting design. Sam Halmarack’s sound design accompanies the movement with rhythmic, electronic reverberations.
At the end of the piece, with quiet rage, the Deaf performers assert their right to exist.