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People of the Eye ★★★★
Edinburgh Summerhall (Venue 26)
Until Saturday 27th August 2016Very rarely is there theatre that focuses solely on the experiences of the disabled, so it was wonderfully refreshing to see People of the Eye’s creative exploration of deafness. I went into the theatre having never had to question my own, rather taken for granted, ability to hear. I left with the experiences of deafness, that The Deaf and Hearing Ensemble’s show had so creatively managed to communicate, imprinted very vividly on my mind and emotions.
On learning that this piece was about a family having a deaf child and becoming accustomed to the challenges that brings, you might assume this play was quite sad. Indeed, there were most definitely poignant and upsetting parts. But Emily Howlett and Erin Siobhan Hutching’s performances are charming and witty to match the varied narrative that examines both the sad and amusing complexities of families having to adapt to a new way of life. And they do communicate the sense of separate worlds. At one point, Erin’s character ponders with a hint of sadness how she was ‘welcomed into [her sister’s] deaf world’, forcing the audience to think about how accommodated deaf people are into a world of sound. Yet their show answers this by asking the audience to put themselves in the shoes of these characters. With only sheets of paper, a few chairs and a video projector, this show induces empathy through creativity at the highest level.
This was what struck me the most, the imaginativeness of their story telling, and how effectively it made the audience understand. I enjoyed half way through finding myself in a sign language class. It took us a while to realise that Emily wanted to us respond to her sign. But her confident and endearing performance kept the audience engaged and supported through our muddled attempts. It was a practical and delightful way for the audience to confront the challenges that the family had to face.
They used the space to its fullest abilities as well. The audience felt the weight of bureaucratic and overly formal medical treatment, as the doctor revealing the results of the baby’s hearing tests moved like a robot. She walked around the space in right angles and straight lines with a blank face, heightening the mother’s bewildered and isolated expression. This was a moving moment as the parents fear for her child felt unsupported, her loneliness emphasised as the doctor’s words were typed out on the screen at the back; indeed, the formality of the doctor was comparable to receiving such news by a letter.
With their topic and focus, the use of silence was moving and powerful. At one point, the audience were placed in the silent world of a deaf person, as Emily followed her sister around what I presume was a university open day. Her sister talked to person after person, coming from each with papers to pile on top of her sister, who looked growingly agitated. Erin mimed talking, so the focus was solely on Emily’s isolation under the growing information which she felt cut off from. They were great at building the tension, as Emily scrambled to keep a hold of all the papers – synonymous with her scrambling to understand the overwhelmingly silent world around her. She eventually breaks. It was a moving and heart breaking moment in which a young girl didn’t feel in control or in tune with her environment.
What is exciting about devised work with such a fluid narrative is that it always has room to grow. There were points in the beginning that felt they could benefit from more time in the rehearsal room, moments where dialogue is delivered but doesn’t use the space as creatively as the rest of the play. But when watching this show, which moved me with very little words about an experience so far removed from my own, I am only eager to know how they’ll develop it more. I know that if I were to see this again I would only continue to learn from, and feel more for the stories they tell.
Review by Jackie Edwards
Tickets cost £11 (£9 conc) and are available from the usual Edinburgh Fringe outlets and online at https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/people-of-the-eye