Sunday, May 07, 2023

Expecting – a couple knocked off course by the arrival of a newborn (c21 Theatre at The MAC as part of Deaf Arts Festival NI before touring NI and Edinburgh)

Expecting is the story of a couple who are having a baby. Shauna (Paula Clarke) is very much in control of her life, her identity and her career. Despite leaving school with only a handful of formal qualifications, she has a degree in fine art photography and her work is in demand. When Robbie (Eoghan Lamb) comes stumbling into her life, she’s wary, but the hard-working, self-giving bundle of energy wins her round. Ten years later, the arrival of a baby tests whether the couple will sink or swim.

Shauna is deaf, and the play explores some of the challenges of living and working in a world that is intolerant of difference: the need for interpretation and privacy to access services, discriminatory misunderstandings, wariness of being reliant on others. Underneath the love and his admirable work ethic, Robbie is suppressing the extent of his worries about financial security and his ability to be a good parent.

Charis McRoberts’ script engages sensitively with anxiety and postnatal depression. Stereotypes and well-worn clichés are avoided. Sitting as part of an audience that was at least three quarters made up of people from the d/Deaf community, it was great to hear laughter and reaction coming in waves depending on whether people were following the signs or the spoken English. Great effort had been made to ensure that no one audience was favoured or disadvantaged. In conversation with his on-stage partner, Lamb speaks and signs. His longer solo speeches were BSL interpreted at last night’s performance by Kristina Laverty who would step on stage and stand next to him. An English voiceover accompanied Clarke’s signed monologues. Fergus Wachala-Kelly created animated videos with built in captions to convey the inner thoughts of Shauna’s baby, also voiced by André Thiébot.

Expecting holds a mirror up to d/Deaf audiences that will rarely have seen their lives and experiences depicted on a local stage. The themes of the play are also universal, and Robbie’s hidden torment will connect with audiences as strongly as Shauna calling out her everyday trials living in a world strongly biased towards those who are hearing.

Representation is really important in all forms of art and media. If you don’t ever see yourself or people you know and care about being portrayed, then distance grows between you and the medium. It’s one of the arguments – backed by copious research over the years – for moving significant chunks of public service broadcasters out of London and into the north of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Laying aside the practice of the time of young men and boys playing women’s parts, Shakespeare is reckoned to have created around 800 male characters and 150 female ones. The gender balance of more modern playwrights isn’t always much better. Musical theatre defaults to everyone on stage being all singing and all dancing … except for the grandfather figure who is remarkably spry while carrying a walking stick. People can be divided up and labelled using race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, rural/urban, ability, age, political ideology, faith, and any number of other ways. Most of these opportunities for inclusion can also end up as sustained gaps in representation.

A play like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time can tell its story from the point of view of someone with autism. However, it’s difficult to name a play that happens to have a character with autism in it that doesn’t revolve around them. There’s room for both: almost casual representation as well as a more focussed look at particular issues and how they impact people.

Staged by c21 Theatre Company as part of the inaugural Deaf Arts Festival NI (co-founded with Cre8 Theatre who have been staging an adaptation of Sleeping Beauty this weekend), the production of Expecting is a very positive move and hopefully the start of a pipeline of shows that will service both specific or integrated audiences, and will provide a focus on deafness and hearing loss as well as mainstreaming the participation and casting of d/Deaf actors in other productions.

Stephen Kelly has adapted his direction of Expecting to keep hand movements visible to audience members and deal with the pacing issues that bilingual productions introduce. His behind-the-scenes learning (and passing his BSL level 1) is an important part of the overall process of improving accessibility and more fully serving a wider range of audiences.  This has been a recent theme of Northern Irish theatre with Replay Theatre captioninh every performance of their children’s show PRISM and providing BSL or ISL interpretation at every other performance, and Lyric Theatre productions now routinely running audio described, captioned and BSL/ISL signed performances.

c21 Theatre are touring Expecting through Bangor (Thursday 11 May), Lisburn (Friday 12), Armagh (Saturday 13) and Newtownabbey (Saturday 20). Expecting will also be travelling to the Edinburgh Deaf Festival in August.

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