“We have a duty of care to all our employees”
I may not be a Deaf Critic but I am a critic who is partially deaf, a state of affairs positions me rather uniquely when it comes to appreciating Deafinitely Theatre’s latest production – a bilingual version of Mike Bartlett’s 2008 two-hander Contractions. Bilingual as a matter of course, as all of Deafinitely’s productions are in using British Sign Language and English but bilingual too as a provocation, in that director Paula Garfield uses neither language continuously.
So as we sit through a series of business meetings between a brutally officious manager (who signs) and corporate wannabe Emma (who both speaks and signs), there’s an ingenious sense of dislocation, of delayed and incomplete comprehension, which is as incisive a theatrical representation of what it is like to be deaf in a hearing world as I could ever imagine. And it is a fascinating way to portray the brutal acuity that typifies much of Bartlett’s small-scale plays and their sharp dialogue.
Nearly a decade down the line, Contractions has lost none of its relevance in its indictment of corporate culture, both in how it is exacted upon workforces and also how (some) people subscribe so fully to it, at the expense of anything else in their life. Fifi Garfield’s imperious manager is magnificent as she drips with disdain at having to deal with this underling and clearly relishes the control she is able to exert, taking care to cleverly implicate us all in the expectation of what is ‘reasonable’.
And opposite her, Abigail Poulton’s Emma is an intriguing presence. Hauled up under a suspected breach of contract then sinisterly pushed to unimaginable limits, Poulton plays out the conflict of someone who knows the ground is being hollowed out from under her, distancing herself bit by bit even as she’s drinking the Kool-Aid. This comes to brilliant fruition in the final grace note of the production which suggests she might just have learned how to play the game.
Contractions also sees the public debut of ND2, the New Diorama’s new rehearsal room complex centred on the extraordinary space of the Atrium, a former trading floor for JP Morgan and a cannily site-specific location for this play, surrounded as it is by working offices looking down onto us. Paul Burgess’ design naturally works effectively here and Joe Hornsby’s lighting design does extremely well to provide interest in a space bleached out by strip lighting, enhanced by the atmospheric swell of Chris Bartholomew’s compositions.
I can’t help but have an intensely personal reaction (as with Tribes back in 2010, it’s hard to sufficiently explain the feeling of seeing yourself represented onstage when it happens so rarely) but this is a fiercely intelligent production of a strong play and one which has much to say to all audiences, regardless of hearing ability. How much are we willing to sacrifice in the name of business, and how much are we willing to let them demand of us but more importantly, how good are we at communicating with each other, at really understanding what other people might need.