Southbank Centre have gone online this week to present Unlimited Festival, which features dance, performance, comedy, music and visual art with the intention of celebrating the artistic vision and creativity of disabled artists. Augmented was presented on the opening night of the festival in the format of a live-stream of a pre-recorded film of the staged production, which was touring in March 2020 when Covid19 cut the tour short. It has gone on to be featured at several theatre festivals around the country in the 12 months that followed.
Augmented, a new play by self-proclaimed ‘cyborg’ Sophie Woolley explores how hearing (and not hearing) has shaped her identity over the last three decades. In brazen style and with side-splitting honesty, she shares her personal story of navigating from the world of the hearing to the deaf, then returning as an implanted ‘cyborg’ version of her former self. Turning the cochlear implant on may be as simple as flicking a switch, but the reality of returning to the hearing world is quite different.
Over the course of her journey we see many Sophie’s, all with barriers they must face. The world is not as simple as ‘hearing’ and ‘deaf’ and as her hearing loss changes, she mourns and celebrates in equal measure what she gains and what she has lost. She celebrates being able to switch off and return to hearing nothing but mourns the hearing-Sophie that will never completely return. In showing us how she is treated in the binary of ‘hearing’ and ‘deaf’ our prejudices and behaviours are justly challenged, but with humour and with production elements that allow us to feel welcomed into her head.
“but you can’t dance to a bloody train, can you?”
Sophie herself is open, warm and engaging, but it is the melding of soundscape, choreography, lighting design and her performance itself that really bring her story to life and help hearing audience members to get inside her head. Losing the music she once enjoyed affects her deeply and it is a shame we are not in the room for this live stream to really feel the vibrations of the trains on the railway bridges she stands underneath, “the vibrations tells me what’s there… but you can’t dance to a bloody train can you?”.
Muffled beats and vibrations are used to help us understand the frustrations of her hearing loss, but then by contrast her impressions of sounds when she is first testing her implant are projected across the stage as beautiful waves of light, a mesmerising interpretation that wonderfully illustrates the colour flooding back into her world. She situates this scene on a London Underground escalator, so in reality the space around her would have been drab, grey and full of strangers faces. As the sound around her allows her to see differently, it’s a joy to imagine it not through her eyes but her ears. She is delirious with the volume of it as being deaf, she points out, you can’t appreciate silence because silence is not what you are hearing – you are hearing nothing.
“there is quite a lot for the hearing to learn in Sophie’s world”
As well as the experience of her discoveries to enjoy, there is quite a lot for the Hearing to learn in Sophie’s world. Breaking eye contact between deaf persons signing is considered the height of rudeness (at least by Sophie’s mum!) because so much is expressed not just through the hand signs but through the face. She also shares a lot that you might not have considered about implants, like having to sit through a consultation where they explain the process of drilling into your head. Or the fact that it isn’t simply a cure, it’s a whole new type of hearing. Her honesty is refreshing, as she cajoles herself with YouTube videos of ‘switch-ons’ before getting cross with herself for falling for the hope they offer. Her own switch-on when it comes, does not go entirely to plan!
A good deal of effort has gone into making this production inclusive and stimulating for those who may not have sight or hearing. From the reverse-projection of words onto a screen made from blinds (creatively laid out and formatted like poetry – not just a transcript) to the vivid descriptions in Sophie’s language that enable the imagination to take over, to the BSL interpreter and inclusion of signed conversations between Sophie and the other characters she brings in to tell her story. It’s a production that has been well considered for a spectrum of senses.
Whilst Sophie’s story spans three decades, she also considers the future. Her hearing loss is hereditary and in a reflective moment, Sophie recaps her mum’s rumination on how the family have adapted to it through the generations. From her grandfather who relied on lip reading, to her mum’s BSL sign language, to the future of the implant. One thing is clear, Sophie loves being a cyborg and even tries to sell us the benefits of a new cyborg, modified generation where hearing can be controlled at will; it certainly sounds exciting.
Catch Augmented or find out more about Unlimited Festival here.
Shows are streaming from 13th to the 17th Jan and some are available to watch beyond.
Photo Credit: Helen Murray.