When the Globe opened the doors for foreign companies performing Shakespeare in their native language with Globe to Globe in 2012, they opened up Shakespeare’s beloved texts to new possibilities and interpretations for a London audience. With the traditional language and rhythm believed to be the very core of Shakespeare’s genius, the success of the festival asked the question: is the original language really what makes Shakespeare unique, or is there a universal truth to be discovered in foreign adaptations?
Deafinitely Theatre creates theatre in British Sign Language to reach out to the deaf community, making theatre and Shakespeare accessible to them and responding to the lack of opportunities for deaf actors. The company works with deaf and hearing performers, incorporating visual imagery, music and the two languages – BSL and English – in order to reach a wider audience.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is probably Shakespeare’s most famous comedy and is often re-imagined and produced. Hermia and Lysander are in love, but Hermia’s father, Egeus, wants her to marry Demetrius and demands the duke’s interference. Hermia and Lysander decide to run away together and tell Hermia’s friend, Helena, of the plan. Helena, who’s unhappily in love with Demetrius, decides to tell him of their flight in the hope he’ll show her affection, and they set for the woods at night. Meanwhile in the forest Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the fairies, are arguing about a changeling boy that Titania has stolen. Punishing her for her stubbornness, Oberon sends his servant Puck to fetch a magical flower that will make you fall in love with the first person you see when you awake if squeezed onto the eyes. Seeing the lovers quarrelling in the forest Oberon asks him to make Demetrius fall in love with Helena – but Puck mistakes and mayhem breaks loose in the forest.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is known for its slapstick, bawdiness and mischievous fairies. But Deafinitely Theatre brings something unique to the play with their mixture of BSL and English, music and movement, and an incredible eye for detail and puns. The performers convey the story with skill and a modern energy that makes it accessible for everyone and terribly funny. Having to use other means to get Shakespeare’s language across forces them to dig deep into the physicality of the words and the world, which not only makes the play easy to understand for both deaf and hearing audience members, but is also a refreshing breath of air – something new and exciting. The lovers come from our world, a modern Greece, and all possess a sensitivity to Shakespeare’s humour and energy. Nadia Nadarajah creates a beautiful, physical language for Titania and Alim Jayda’s spirited Puck is pure genius, always manipulating the action and always on the move like a child high on sugar.
Director Paula Garfield has managed to find a delicate balance between the aural and visual perception of the show. Being forced to drag out visual images in the lack of spoken word, she discovers hidden treasures within Shakespeare’s play. The balance of BSL and English is perfect, and the casting is spot on. It’s worth mentioning the band that creates an atmospheric underscore throughout the whole performance, while the changeling boy puppet is just stunning.
Deafinitely Theatre shows that the original text isn’t needed to convey the true genius of Shakespeare, letting the story enchant the audience and guiding us through the play with a sense of ease and rhythm, almost like a ghost of the iambic pentameter lurking under the surface in the physicality of the performers. It has a wonderful, bubbly energy that enlightens almost like child-play, encouraging the audience to engage with the world of the Dream like playmates, part of a common language. We claim that Shakespeare’s plays transcend time and place and deal with unchanging aspects of human nature, which everyone despite different languages or cultures can understand. That’s why this production is so important – it not only opens up the play to a new interpretation, marked by a community not often represented in theatre, but it also creates an important opportunity for deaf people and others to enjoy A Midsummer Night’s Dream explored anew.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing at Shakespeare’s Globe until 7 June. For tickets and more information, see the Shakespeare’s Globe website.