Edinburgh Fringe 2018
In this energetic retelling of a Greek myth, the three Sirens rebel against the way they are depicted by a male author and are banished by Zeus to the bottom of the ocean, finally emerging in the present day. Disappointed to find their voices still seem to lure men to their deaths and that not much appears to have changed for women in the last two thousand years, they join forces with a Deaf boy who is immune to their fatal vocals and embark on a heist to steal the book which contains the inaccurate and offensive depictions they objected to so long ago.
Zoo Co’s work has been admired for their inventive storytelling and humour and this is no exception. Packed with self-aware jokes and tongue-in-cheek ironic commentary, Sirens is a battle cry for equality and highlights how disappointingly far we have to go on that front as a society. “Things must have changed by now!” the Sirens exclaim after realising they have washed up on a beach 2,000 years in the future (in Hastings, of all places). If only it were so!
The performance starts with an announcement that the show is ‘relaxed’, meaning audience members can feel free to stand up, move around, talk and even leave for a break if they need it. The company’s commitment to accessibility is heartening and clearly far more meaningful than a simple tick-box exercise – they have cast Deaf actor Jamal Ajala and use sign language and captioning throughout the show. In fact, along with a feminist message, prejudice towards minority communities (including the Deaf community) and the lack of Deaf awareness exhibited by the general population are important themes in the show. There are telling interactions between Ajala’s character and a fast food employee and then, more disturbingly but no less accurately, a police officer. As he hints in an instant message exchange, being both black and deaf means he is no stranger to prejudice. There’s also queer representation in this story in the form of a lovely budding relationship between one of the Sirens and a girl she meets at the museum.
Timothy Kelly’s projections are a delight, both facilitating access for D/deaf and hard of hearing audience members and supporting the narrative in clever and amusing ways. All the performers deliver charming performances, particularly the trio of Fleur Rooth, Florence O’Mahony and Rosalind Hoy as the Sirens. Nick Gilbert manages to make the skin crawl with a creepy, chauvinist museum curator. Ajala delivers some gorgeous visual vernacular which I would have loved to see a lot more of.
There are some fun movement sequences, such as when the Sirens are taught sign language in an army boot camp-style scene or when they break into the museum avoiding the lasers in a humorous reference to popular heist films. But it’s not all laughs, as the tone abruptly turns serious with a realistic depiction of attempted sexual assault, a reminder that not only do women lack control over our own stories but far too frequently many of us do not have control over what happens to our bodies.
Zoo Co has clearly thrown themselves into making this show with enthusiasm and tried to tackle many important themes, which does mean that some issues receive perfunctory mentions rather than in-depth exploration. The overriding message that it is hugely problematic that the patriarchy controls whose stories are told and how is abundantly clear and the company could place more trust in the audience to understand it without having to explicitly and repeatedly explain it – the lack of subtlety is a fun aspect of the cheeky delivery but by the end it starts to seem that the show is either insecure about its own dramaturgy or its audience’s intelligence.
The commitment to the cast using sign language is wonderful to see but the show could really benefit from a BSL consultant or outside eye throughout the rehearsal process to monitor the actors’ delivery of sign language. As a BSL fluent theatre maker myself I want to acknowledge the wonderful job the hearing cast has done here and applaud their commitment to inclusivity by taking the time to learn to sign themselves, which is always the ideal approach to working with D/deaf BSL users and using sign language in a show. However, it is evident that none of the hearing actors are fluent (although of course Deaf actor Ajala is very fluent) and at times it is difficult to understand their signing. That in itself is not necessarily an issue – the show has framed the hearing characters as having recently learned sign language and there are always captions available to support accessibility for BSL and non-BSL users alike. However, much like a speaking actor would not speak on stage in exactly the same way they talk off stage (a level of voice training and projection is required), a signing actor does not sign on stage in exactly the same way they sign in conversation and for a hearing person, being able to have a conversation with a D/deaf BSL user in everyday life does not indicate readiness for signing on stage. The use of a BSL consultant is widely used throughout film, theatre and television – their role is to support translation and offer feedback on performance which supports the director to ensure that actors (both D/deaf and hearing) deliver their signed dialogue in the best possible way, something which is important even for native or fluent signers. The end of this article in the Stage by performer and CODA (Child of Deaf Adult) Alim Jayda outlines the importance of using a Deaf consultant to support the cast and ensure that the use of sign language is more than just creative design. I hope Zoo Co continues to embrace the use of BSL in their work supported by appropriate consultancy from the Deaf community.
In saying that, despite those minor criticisms this is a wonderfully entertaining show addressing important themes by a company which has demonstrated a commitment to accessibility that other companies should look to emulate. I recommend checking out this show and am very excited to see what they do next.