The audience comes to a hush as Mabel Hubbard (played by Tara Rosling) enters and sits centre stage. She lights a candle silently as the set builds around her.
Silence by playwright Trina Davies premiered at the Grand Theatre in London on Jan 19. The production is part of the Grand Theatre’s COMPASS New Play Development Program, which aims to bring original shows and a renewed passion for theatre to London.
The play follows the true story of Canadian inventor Alexander Graham Bell (played by Graham Cuthbertson) and his wife Mabel Hubbard, who are on the brink of inventing the telephone, as well as their lives following it.
In her childhood, Mabel lost her hearing to scarlet fever. The show begins as Bell begins to tutor her. The audience watches their struggle for communication through mimed scenes and lessons to improve Mabel’s voice.
Graham Cuthbertson’s portrayal of Alexander Graham Bell is ecstatic and brings a new level of understanding to the historical figure. On his pursuit for the perfect first invention, Bell wavers between madness and genius, spending sleepless nights working without end.
In addition to inventing, Bell dedicates his life to teaching the deaf to read lips and use his father's “visible speech system,” (an early version of sign language). Bell's dedication stemmed from the fact that both his wife and mother were deaf.
Bell’s involvement with the Deaf community makes his pursuit to invent the telephone all the more tragic. Despite his success, he is unable to communicate fully with his loved ones.
His erratic character is coupled beautifully with Mabel’s steady, strong disposition. The combination of Tara Rosling’s remarkable acting and the well-constructed nature of the character made for a strong female lead.
Design aspects of the production are used to enhance the audience's experience of Mabel's world. The sound designer, Richard Feren, plays with the concept of hearing throughout the production. Mabel, who is deaf, is able to lip read, and the show is told from her perspective.
As she turns to see the characters, the audience is also able to hear the dialogue. As she turns away from who's speaking, the speech turns to miming and the audience is once again enclosed in Mabel’s world. The audience is pulled in further as Mabel steps into a spotlight to reveal her inner monologue.
Despite the silence that Mabel describes, the sound designer presents viewers with a cascade of sound. The show features the intense noise of Niagara Falls rushing around Mabel and Alexander and the ringing of bells in Mabel’s moments of panic. The soft piano theme throughout connects the scenes and creates an unsettling atmosphere.
The set consists of three grey walls and minimal furniture. The plain walls come to life with the help of lighting and projection designer Beth Kates. The visually stunning projections show the scrawled notes of Alexander Graham Bell’s musings, scientific inquiries and paintings by his mother, which lit up the stage and captivated both the audience and cast. At times the stage was lit simply with the light of falling snow. The lighting enhances the show's focus on the senses. By limiting sound, the audience is forced to interact with the visual aspects, as Mabel would have.
Playing with lighting and sound brings a new dynamic that moves the show forward and adds to the abstract nature of the storytelling. The sound and lighting bring the story to life and force the audience to focus on how they rely on senses. By experiencing this contrast of senses, the audience can begin to understand how Mabel’s world functions.
Silence runs from Jan. 19 to Feb. 3 at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont. More information can be found on the Grand Theatre’s website.