Sophie Stone stars in Kaite O’Reilly’s show which celebrates the forgotten women of the second world war with a powerful visual language
Gareth Llŷr Evans – The Guardian
‘Slipping beneath the radar of surveillance’ … The Beauty Parade
Sophie Stone extends her right arm and lets her hand float downwards while moving her fore and middle fingers back and forth. With this gesture, the actor transports us from a lunchtime bar at the Wales Millennium Centre to a moonlit night in occupied France, where women parachute through the sky.
These are the women of The Beauty Parade, written and co-directed by Kaite O’Reilly. The title comes from a codename for a project established by the Special Operations Executive during the second world war. Fluent French-speaking women from England and Wales were recruited and trained as spies and saboteurs, before being flown across the Channel to join the resistance.
Based on O’Reilly’s text and lyrics, Sophie Stone has created a visual language to be performed as part of the work. Describing her process, Stone says: “It’s taking from a language anything that is visually iconic, and can be understood by either deaf or hearing audiences, then morphing it into a different image, led by an emotional context.” Images of war become tactile, modulated by gravity, speed and intensity. But this is not mere translation; it is deaf-led.
Stone identifies as Deaf with a capital D, which asserts deafness as a culture – rich with its own history, arts, languages and organisations – as opposed to solely the audiological condition, marginalised by a hearing world. “It’s not that I can’t hear,” she says. “I don’t hear. It’s self-empowering. It’s important to say.” She would film her sequences – a combination of elements of British Sign Language, with signed poetry and hand shapes – which were then used by composer Rebecca Applin for the show’s music and songs.
“I love the fact that you Google ‘beauty parade’ and you just get all these women in swimming costumes lining up,” O’Reilly says. But the show’s title also hints at a darker irony. These were women who had to use “their homespun beauty, appearing like the girl next door, to slip beneath the radar of surveillance”. These were extraordinary but ultimately invisible performances, undertaken in extraordinary circumstances.
It is, O’Reilly continues, a mostly forgotten history. “Because they were already using aliases, using their noms de guerre, these women fell between the cracks. Because they were often treated as criminals, they weren’t given POW status.” The war came to an end, and these women simply disappeared.
O’Reilly’s text allows for these stories to take centre stage. As a leading figure in disability arts and culture in the UK, foregrounding often marginalised bodies and voices is central to her work. Acclaimed for her writing specifically for deaf and disabled performers, her work invites audiences to interrogate our preconceptions of the centre and the periphery. The Beauty Parade is the first time that music has been central in the development of one of her plays.
On stage, Stone’s visual language, performed alongside actor-musicians Georgina White and Anne-Marie Piazza, is interwoven with O’Reilly’s text and Applin’s music. Sometimes these different languages echo and augment each other; sometimes they collide. But the effect, even when glimpsed early in their rehearsal period, feels viscerally theatrical. By necessity, according to the specific needs of the three performers, they breathe as one: setting the pace, shaping its rhythms and guiding each other.
In our separate conversations, both O’Reilly and Stone playfully suggest that the recent increased visibility of deaf and disabled stage performers was due to it being “fashionable”. But now, as a result of what might have initially been tick-box exercises, it is starting to bear real change. It is an exciting time, particularly for deaf actors, who are empowered beyond doing “lovely things with their hands,” as Stone jokes. “From being let into a room, people have realised that we’re worth so much more than that. It’s more than just fashion. It’s more than just box-ticking. We actually have something that makes the work richer.”
Stretching across the lobby of the Millennium Centre hangs a banner advertising the production, which the venue is co-producing. It features all three performers, standing to attention, dressed in period costume. They stare directly into the camera. The image is also prominently displayed outside the venue, next to posters for forthcoming megamusical tour stops. The Beauty Parade affirms its presence – it’s as equally mainstream as any of these offerings. Invisible women no longer, demanding that we meet their gaze. “This is the first time I’ve been put on a poster,” says Stone. “It’s the first time I’ve been advertised in a way that is commercial and as a character. And I look as equal as everyone else on that poster.”
- The Beauty Parade is at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 5-14 March.