Unlimited: Augmented

Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival, presenting new work by disabled artists, had a digital premiere tonight of Sophie Woolley’s autobiographical show, Augmented, directed by Rachel Bagshaw.

This is a one-woman show about hearing, deafness, and returning to the hearing fold via technology. A “deaf cyborg”, as Woolley announces at the top of the show, with an implant that can amplify sound and even stream music.

Augmented is a provoking piece about engaing with the world in a different way, about the commonplace and the casual if unintentional discrimination caused by “the hearing oppressor”. A deeply personal piece which does reach to others, whether you know about cochlear mplants or not.

Utilising discordant sounds, snatches of music, vibrations, BSL and some beautiful passages of language (often depicted in the on-stage captions in a visual motif of movement, overlapping, or stretching), this piece clearly addresses the emotional journey the character/writing has gone on.

It is often disarmingly funny: a scene set at a book launch where Sophie’s sign interpreter has emailed in sick and left her in the lurch bubbles with hilarity despite the clear unease and upset of the situation.

It is also incredibly poignant. A scene on holiday, pre-implant, underlines the confusion a deaf person may feel in a room of the hearing, when ultimately they feel unable to contribute in what’s going on.

Woolley’s movement (by Rachel Drazek) makes her journey’s ups and downs very clear. It may have been easier to shout and declaim the frustrations, but I felt the tightness of body really brought the anger and anxiety of returning to a hearing world into sharp relief.

There were moments I recognised from deaf friends: the vibrations of music, the subtle differences between national versions of sigb language. The soundscape (by Adrienne Quartly) really underlines how the ear really attunes itself to “noise” and filters out what is not required, and how losing that hearing capability manifests itself.

Woolley’s family members feature in the play: the mum who has a hearing dog and relies on signing, the hearing husband who does his best but sometimes slips into a hearing consciousness.

As the different aspects of “Sophie” move through the play – deaf Sophie, hearing Sophie, cyborg Sophie, and of course, writer Sophie – we are pulled into her experience, at one point she is “jealous of the hearing me”, at another she is racing around in a buzz at the technology which allows her to “switch off”.

Augmented was streamed as part of the Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival on 13 January 2020, and is available on demand until 15 January. It is free to view, but a ticket must be booked.

Production images: Helen Murray