Complete Listening

CAN I START AGAIN PLEASE by Sue MacLaine, with Sue MacLaine and Nadia Nadarajah, Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts (ACCA), University of Sussex, Thursday, 15th December 2016, 7.30pm.

Another week, another show which references Wittgenstein (Bluets, on the 8th December, was based on a text which was a response to Wittgenstein) though in this case, maybe the reference is not so deferential.

There’s a famous quote from Wittgenstein, something along the lines of: ‘if you can’t find the words, then just shut your mouth’. (He puts it better.)

Sue MacLaine and Nadia Nadarajah take another, somewhat more jaundiced view of this theory. Maybe there are things you can’t find the words for that ought to be shouted from the rooftops.

And if you’re deaf and you communicate through sign language, how do you shout? How can you make yourself heard? Or seen? And how can you express outrage? How can you get the attention of those who may want to ignore you? To ignore what you have to say? Or sign?

The two performers are dressed the same, (are they one person?) and are onstage when the audience enters. In fact they seem not to be able to walk. Do they even have legs? (The characters that is.) Mermaids of an undersea library? They are sitting on books: words, words, words; and they read from a long scroll, a continuous sheet of paper: ‘Reading from the same hymn sheet.’

While Sue speaks, Nadia signs. Or, more rarely, Nadia speaks and Sue signs. Sometimes Sue is ahead, as though Nadia is translating what she’s saying and sometime vice versa, Sue explains as Nadia signs. Together, following lots of byways, highways, narrow paths, country lanes, lots of doubling back, going this way and that, they tell a kind of suggested narrative, portending something utterly central but never really committing themselves.

They seem to conjure up another character altogether, who is both of them and neither. The way that they come at the story, from a tangent, never looking straight at it, creates the state of mind of this person, who can’t seem to make sense of what has happened, and as she doesn’t have the words, can’t bring it out into the light as it were.

And Nadia’s signing wasn’t confined to words. It was communication with the body. It was dance but more than dance, it was speech but more than speech. It was another thing altogether. And she does shout, physically. And when she does it is very effective, and affecting. She finds the words.

My memory of the show was of having something imparted to me without my really understanding quite how. I couldn’t really divide what I heard, what I intimated, into discreet words or sentences. Though I definitely remember words, and sometimes they held up signs with words on, but the meaning, the communication came through a kind of physical experience. We were made to feel how it felt to sign, to communicate with your whole body. And to listen was to listen by somehow intimating how that felt. It was complete listening.

Sadly this was the final performance of Can I Start Again Please after a national tour. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to have seen it and look forward very much to what this company may do in the future.

Paul Corcoran