Gestures speak louder than words

Show of Hands fuses sign language with dramatic action. Clare Bayley's curiosity is aroused
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The Independent Culture
In Artistic Sign Language the way to say "knight" is a hand gesture like the closing of a visor on a 13th-century metal helmet. In Show of Hands's production of Don Quixote de la Mancha for deaf and hearing audiences the gesture is curiously similar to the one for "he's crazy" (understandable in almost any language) so that, done with a certain flourish, the very word "knight" takes on the implication of "mad knight", which for Don Quixote is singularly appropriate.

Show of Hands, an ensemble of deaf and hearing actors, start from the basis of three distinct forms of communication for deaf people: British Sign Language, which has its own grammatical structure, vocabulary of hand shapes and a finger-spelling alphabet; sign-supported English, or spoken English supported by sign language; and sign-mime - a fusion of sign and mime developed for storytelling. The result, Artistic Sign Language, is a wonderfully versatile system of communication that is essentially theatrical, relying on gesture, facial expression and physicality. When Brian Friel's play Wonderful Tennessee told the story of a deaf man who learnt to speak through his piano-accordion, he created a beautiful conceit but missed a trick as far as deaf audiences are concerned.

Artistic Sign Language is not abashed to incorporate well-known gestures of international sign language, some of them rude. It is a living hybrid vernacular of which a large proportion of the population is completely ignorant. In Don Quixote, some of the more obscure words and names are spelt out letter by letter, but Show of Hands are actively expanding the language through their productions. How common a word, for example, would "goaty" be to an urban British audience. The gestures they are defining will doubtless feed into the official BSL lexicon.

Show of Hands's work is unusual in that it incorporates signing into the dramatic action. A sign language interpreter standing at the side of the stage has become a common sight, and a welcome one, despite its limitations. Not only is it as distracting as watching subtitles (whole chunks of choreographed action can be missed if there's much dialogue happening as well) but, as Maggie Woolley, director of the disability arts organisation Shape, points out, in London most events are interpreted by the same person. "If Judi Dench performed every role in every play in every theatre, would you want to go to every play?" she asks. You can see her point.

Neil Biswas's play Over Hear, which has just completed a national tour, also incorporates sign language as an integral part of its plot, though its intentions are totally different to those of Don Quixote. Over Hear is principally intended for hearing audiences, so it introduces issues of deafness, and uses deafness, as a metaphor for all kinds of emotional non-communication.

Our young hero, Mike, is dumped by his girlfriend who has sneakily taken up with his best friend, and he's upset by his parents, who are rowing over an alleged infidelity by Mike's mother. When Mike suddenly goes deaf, the true extent of everybody's inability to express their feelings becomes glaringly obvious. Luckily, Mike meets a beautiful, young deaf woman who, through teaching him sign language and lip-reading, gives him the gift of self-expression. There's a twist at the end - Mike was only pretending to be deaf - but basically Over Hear is an issue play: Mike has learnt some important lessons about the exclusion of deaf people from society along the way.

The use of sign language adds flavour to the drama but only gives deaf audiences brief flashes of insight. The ubiquitous interpreter was still to be seen at the side of the stage for certain performances. Above all, the play arouses curiosity in the uninitiated but fails to provide them with a fuller understanding of the richness and vibrancy of the various sign languages that can be so fascinating to all kinds of audiences.