The Bush Theatre’s production ‘Going Through’ illuminates the realities of child migration through the deaf experience. Natasha Sutton Williams spoke to actor Nadia Nadarajah, director Omar Elerian and translator Kirsten Hazel Smith about their creative process and how they blended English, British Sign Language, Creative Captioning and Visual Vernacular into the show.
Going Through is a two-hander focusing on the relationship between Youmna who is deaf, and her hearing daughter Nour, as Youma prepares Nour to leave home. The story follows Nour’s passage through childhood, journeying across borders to meet her real birth mother.
The play was originally penned by French writer and director Estelle Savasta. She studied at the International Visual Theatre in Paris, learning how to integrate French and Sign Language into her plays. She then wrote and directed Traversée (Going Through) in 2011. The show has been a critical success, with English and Spanish translations, multiple productions in France, Canada and will be performed in Mexico, as well as the upcoming production in London.
So what has made this play resonate with so many D/deaf and hearing audiences?
“Estelle has worked with D/deaf actors and specifically wrote this play for sign language,” says actor Nadia Nadarajah. “She understands D/deaf culture and the community. She knows the language, poetry and visual elements used by D/deaf people. The text is emotional and poetic.”
“This play is not about access; it’s not like we had to make it accessible with signing and voicing. We could forget about that because anybody can come see it. D/deaf and hearing people will at certain points get lost; this is intentional. Suddenly the hearing audience will get it, then the Deaf audience will get it, or vice versa, so we share it together.”
Director Omar Elerian agrees with Nadarajah, adding:
“From my hearing perspective, sign language is often associated with the idea of it being beautiful, floaty and poetic, or being inaccessible and Deaf characters being excluded. There is truth to both of these statements but what we are most interested in is the middle ground: the more lived experience of sign language that encompasses a huge range of emotions. In the play you can see how sign language works at different levels. Some moments will feel gritty, jagged and realistic. Other times it will be heightened and poetic. Sometimes it will feel chaotic and confusing to a hearing audience, but I think there is a truth to that.”
Going Through is the first translation that French/Scottish translator and actor Kirsten Hazel Smith has worked on. Utilising her acting training was integral to the translation process:
“My translation of Going Through is not a literal one. Of course it is important to respect the original text but you have to make it resonate in English. I think when you’re involved in any creative endeavour it’s important to bring everything you can to the table, so I certainly use my experience as an actor when translating a scene.”
So why aren’t more translated plays being produced in the UK?
“I think there are more translations being put on than people realise because often the translator isn’t widely promoted. Literary agent Sissi Liechtenstein from IPR is a huge advocate of European Theatre, and is certainly doing her best to get it included on the British Theatre map. She created the bilingual English/French Cross Channel Theatre Group with the French Institute to promote French new writing. This is how we discovered Estelle Savasta’s Traversée.”
Italian-Palestinian director Elerian is no stranger to French theatre, having trained at Jacques Lecoq International Theatre School in Paris. Last year he directed Misty, a seminal hit both at the Bush and in the West End. Elerian described the expressive form of Going Through, and why deafness is so fundamental to the narrative:
“The protagonist Nour has to repress two parts of her identity. One is the signing part – her deaf identity – and the other is her gender identity because she needs to be a boy in order to do her crossing. These two suppressions in order to become invisible are telling in terms of what one must do to have a safe passage.”
‘There is a lot of life, joy and communication in the first half, which is more signed, yet the more Nour enters the hearing world, the more she is silenced and isolated. It subverts that cliché that D/deaf people are isolated because of their deafness. It’s through becoming a hearing person that Nour becomes secluded in her world. The more she fits in, the more she suppresses that identity, the more she feels alone.”
Like playwright Savasta, actor Nadarajah trained at the International Visual Theatre in Paris, on the Physical and Bilingual acting course. In preparation for rehearsals, Nadarajah returned to her school for a week’s masterclass to focus on Visual Vernacular:
“The VV training really helped me understand the play’s story, poetic style, and the visual elements of it. I came back packed full of ideas. During rehearsals we also had Louise Stern’s help. She is an Associate Director at the Bush and uses American Sign Language, which is very different from BSL. Louise would tell me, ‘Nadia, that’s too BSL. We need to paint a picture here’. She is very visual. Like an artist, she draws pictures.”
More and more British theatre productions are integrating Creative Captioning in their work, but Visual Vernacular is still a relatively new medium in the UK. Nadarajah explained how it is distinct from BSL:
“In BSL we have facial expression, timeline, the structure of grammar. VV has its own language rules and linguistics. You become things in VV. For instance, to indicate the moon you yourself become the moon looking down. You become the elements of the story. The hearing audience will get something from it without knowing sign language. It’s not just ‘sign-sign-sign, here is the story’. We have this visual painting tool. We want the audience to take that information and feel what Nour is going through, feel what real people out there are going through, and feel those feelings through the signs.”
Going Through will be performed at the Bush Theatre from 29 March – 27 April.
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All performances combine English, BSL and Creative Captioning, with the aim of being equally accessible to hearing and deaf audiences.
Please note this show contains flashing lights and video throughout.
Post-show Q&A: Tue 9 Apr
Hear from the cast and creatives of Going Through after the show. Fully accessible to deaf audiences. Free to ticket holders on the night.
Audio Described Performance
Sat 13 Apr 2.30pm
The Bush Theatre is fully accessible. For more access details, please see the Bush’s Accessibility info.