Created for both hearing and deaf audiences, WillFredd Theatre’s Follow is a courageous hour-long solo performance, punctuated by flashing light bulbs and pulsing music.
The play begins with loud music, as those waiting in their seats chat idly, some signing, while those speaking to each other have to contend with the noisy ‘Deaf Disco’ before it ends with a flash of light and an attention-commanding bang. From centre stage, actor and co-creator Shane O’Reilly then leads his audience into a mesmerising world where sound is simultaneously important and unimportant.
Throughout the shows, O’Reilly races through a series of vivid, thought-provoking scenes containing a singe common denominator: deafness. O’Reilly, who is not hearing-impaired but grew up with deaf parents, transmits his messages, vignette, by light, movement, sign language and facial expression. With the exception of a single chair, the set is totally unfurnished. Props, too, are basic and infrequent.
In spite of this, O’Reilly plays out the trials of his various characters, effortlessly transporting us from the scene of an accident to a Christian Brothers school to the office of an insurance broker to a bath in Lourdes.
As the scenes progress, the audience must rely on all senses to absorb the messages conveyed. The performance is at once funny and sad, achieving an emotional power by contextualising and blending a variety of challenges – some generational, some particular to the deaf community.
Follow won the Spirit of the Fringe award at the Absolut Fringe Festival in Dublin in 2011 and it is easy to understand why. As director, Sophie Motley has deftly navigated a multitude of wide-ranging emotions, eras, ages and capabilities – exploring difficult themes and introducing humour in the most unlikely places.
O’Reilly’s incredible vocal range is (appropriately) matched by his stage presence, which fluctuates between breathless pace and slow reflection. It’s an exceptional, high-energy performance: one he is assisted with by a thoughtful lighting design by Sarah Jane Shiels.
Ultimately, the sound, which is booming at times, becomes less important, like the subtitles running across the small screen overhead.
O’Reilly leads with a mixture of sign language, movement, expression and insightful interactions with light; it’s up to everybody else to let go and follow as they can.
Follow doesn’t come across as an impulsive experiment but, rather, as an assure and effective production. At its ease, it will shock you, impress you and make you think.