Reflection on Spark in London (#2)
Signdance Collective International and Middlesex University, London, UK
Directed by Pedro de Senna
Performed part spoken/part in British Sign Language
November 23, 2012
by Pedro de Senna
For the actors of SignDance Collective International, it was a challenge: reading Spark, with its American idioms and specificities, whilst signing in British Sign Language (BSL) involved a simultaneous, double process of interpretation. Caridad Svich’s writing is so grounded in a lexical reality (her ear is so close to the ground), that a transposition from a localised American hearing culture to British Deaf culture – or rather, the superimposition of the two – was nearly impossible.
The small audience of Theatre Arts students at Middlesex University (all non-signers) were impressed. The fluency, beauty and sheer expressivity of the Sign Language lent the characters a gestural poesy – even at a “reading” – that heightened the text’s earthy naturalism. Isolte Ávila’s interpretation revealed an underlying sensuality in Evelyn’s pathos; she constantly signed, in a tour-de-force that left her exhausted physically and mentally. Laura Goulden (Lexie) and Francesca Osimani (Ali) completed the trio of sisters, whose signing punctuated and strengthened their characters’ already forceful temperaments. David K. Bower gave Hector a softness in his signing, charming the audience with his warmth. Sign Language happens in space, and is inherently performative. If David Mamet once claimed that “there is no character, there are just lines on the page”, here the lines acquire their own physicality, they are embodied in their very utterance. In contrast, my own reading of Vaughn, the most other-worldly of the characters in the play, was subdued.
I can’t sign.
In a sense, this dichotomy served the purposes of the play and highlighted Vaughn’s difference, in a kind of via negativa. His dis-embodiment was more acutely present. This was the paradox of the reading: that the character who is furthest from the ground was given the least heightened of performances. Or, to put it from another angle: that the heightening provided by BSL somehow anchored the signing characters to the world of the play.
This was made possible because of the nature of Sign Language, but also because of the quality in the writing itself. Even in their most naturalistic, Caridad Svich’s plays never lose sight of the super-natural, and the author finds poetry in the most mundane of details, like the cigarette butt that is dropped and then picked up again by someone else. Or the strike of lightning that is also a spark of love in a car dealership.
When asked, after the reading, what they thought the play was about, an audience member said: “It’s about conflict in all its forms.” Conflict, expressed in these binomials through which the writer so aptly navigates: natural and super-natural, personal and political, male and female, the dead and the living, army cadences and church-hymns, fighting and flirting. And all of which were given life in the beautiful gaps between speaking and signing.
Pedro de Senna is a theatre practitioner and academic. He was born in Rio de Janeiro, where he started performing in 1993, and he has been a member of SignDance Collective since 2010. He is a lecturer in Contemporary Theatre Theory and Practice at Middlesex University.