Maggie Hampton takes a look at the new musical adaptation from Leeway Productions, from the point of view of someone who is deaf. The Last Five Years weaves through it a number of innovative techniques designed to make theatre more accessible for people with hearing impairments, with the use of sign language and deaf performers; Maggie asks whether this exciting step has hit all the right notes.
When my hearing deteriorated rapidly, decades ago, I finally had to give up with music; it was a lost world to me. But now I have a cochlear implant (CI) and am learning to enjoy music again, so The Last Five Years by Leeway Productions promised plenty of goodies for me: deaf performers, choreography by Mark Smith (Deaf Men Dancing), closed captions, sign language interpretation, and music.
It looked like a full house queuing outside WMC’s Weston Studio, and as we filed in, I saw a steward holding iPad-sized tablets with the letters CC lighting up the screens. I asked if these were for captions and was told yes, and given my own screen. Interesting that the audience was not informed about this beforehand. I had thought that the captions would be projected into the stage and suspect that others may have assumed the same. I saw very few other people using the caption screens, although they worked really well. It just seemed a rather casual approach to an important access feature; it was very easy to miss the giving out of screens in the busy venue.
The staging of the production does a lot right. The live band and voices in that small space worked well for me and my cyborg hearing. The set was busy, which could have been distracting for a deaf audience, as we often have difficulties with visual noise, but at the end that didn’t prove a problem; the set helped to make it clear what was happening with the narrative timelines.
The characters, Jamie and Cathy, are each played by two performers simultaneously; a signing/acting character and a signing/dancing counterpart. This had the potential to work well in terms of the two languages; English and British Sign Language (BSL), and is a much more innovative idea than simply sticking an interpreter on the side of the stage. Anthony Snowden was just wonderful as Jamie’s singing alter ego. He brought fabulous humour, pathos and a real sense of Deaf culture to the stage; I loved how he interrupted the singing, talking Jamie (Michael Hamway) to check things out ‘What was that? Show me!’
Raffie Julien was the signing Cathy, with Lauren Hood singing. Raffie used Sign Supported English, which is quite different to BSL, but she was very clear and easy to understand. I would have liked to see more interaction between the two Cathys and felt that the alter ego relationship could have been explored more there.
I had hoped to see parity between the two languages on the stage of this Leeway Productions production, but sadly this didn’t work as well as it might have. Singing and speech were not consistently signed, leaving deaf audience totally reliant upon their caption screens at times. Whilst this was not a problem for those of us who are first language English, a BSL user not using the captions would have missed out. There were also some frustrating moments when the performers were sideways on to the audience, meaning that we missed signs or faces to lipread. If this had been done deliberately, as an illustration of communication breakdown, it would have been different. There were a few missed opportunities here, and the speaking/signing alter egos could have been used to even greater effect.
This production was very accessible for people like me; CI users with musical knowledge and BSL second language – and there are more of us than you might think, so we are worth marketing to. It might also appeal to people with moderate hearing loss who enjoy music and can cope with the volume of sound. Deaf people who are BSL users the first language would probably struggle with the access here. We deaf people have a whole range of access requirements and making performance accessible for all is something of a Holy Grail that continues to present challenges. But having said this, I’m really glad Leeway Productions developed this work; I enjoyed it tremendously.
The Last Five Years is on tour around Wales now.
Other Wales Arts Review pieces on performance arts are available to read through here.