“When we were touring A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Jane Jessop recalls fondly, “after one of the shows, a member of the audience approached me and said they’d never understood the play properly before seeing our actors perform it.” An extraordinary statement from an extraordinary company: Blue Apple Theatre challenges audience preconceptions by working with talented actors who have learning disabilities. Led by Jane, the company is this year touring a production of Hamlet with a company of six actors with learning disabilities.

“The reason for doing it,” Jane continues, “is because these particular actors are all young and they have great ambition. This is the most famous play in the world and hopefully we can bring recognition from the mainstream arts world for artists with learning disabilities, who want to take part on stage but don’t usually have a chance to do so. Shakespeare speaks to us all, and we should open those doors and allow everybody to taste what he has to say to us. We chose Hamlet because we thought it would be the ultimate challenge for our actors to take on. We want to challenge the preconceptions of the theatrical world at large, and hopefully our actors will become accepted as artists in their own right, as professionals. There is something new and differently thought-provoking about what our actors produce.”

Writer William Jessop, in turn, has observed “a lack of understanding in society about learning disabilities… theatre is a fantastic way in which we can show people more about the subject… The level of talent that our actors possess is what truly blows away public audiences. They come not really knowing what to expect. Will they have to make any concessions? Will the show hang together? In the end they see a real theatrical show and they forget they’ve been watching people with learning disabilities. If we can go some way towards showcasing the abilities and personalities of these actors, and honestly look at them as professional actors, then we can help our audience members to do the same.”

Both also believe that taking part in theatre increases the quality of their actors’ lives outside of the company. The most rewarding element of his work, William asserts, “is seeing the actors blossom as people and seeing the discipline of acting giving them real confidence to take out into their lives. They realise they can learn lines and perform, and, above all, when they stand on stage in front of members of society that they don’t know, they can make them laugh with them, and at the end they can be applauded and cheered for what they’ve done. It creates a feeling of acceptance and vindication of themselves as people.” Jane cites this as the reason for the company’s high demand. “When we first started we didn’t know what the demand would be, so we held workshops. We were completely swamped, and since then we have always been full with a long waiting list. Taking part on stage is life-changing for everybody, but especially for our members who were vulnerable and isolated, who didn’t have much to do in their lives, who found it difficult to get a job or have a meaningful occupation. Taking part in theatre gives them a challenge, something to work towards and share. It makes them much more sociable and allows them to build friendship networks.”

Four of Hamlet’s six actors have Down’s Syndrome, including William’s brother Tommy, who is taking on the challenging lead role. It has been particularly moving for William to see the effect of theatre on his brother’s life. “Sometimes people with Down’s Syndrome find it difficult to separate fiction from reality, so Hamlet has been blurring with his own real life. Every actor tries to do that, to bring themself to the part, but for him it’s a natural process. The other thing he finds difficult is coming to terms with his emotions, as do we all, of course. There is something about the process of acting that unleashes these emotions. It’s incredibly empowering for him.”

“For two or three of our actors, their conditions imply difficulties with speech, and we’re lucky enough to be working with a voice and language coach who just retired from the RSC,” Jane comments proudly. “They have no problem learning lines or understanding character, they’re fantastic. The actress playing Ophelia is a particularly beautiful dancer, and she has some very moving dance scenes. One of the actors has Asperger’s Syndrome, so you’d imagine it would be almost impossible for him to play or relate to a character. But this week we had such a wonderful breakthrough and we can see now how his character will be. Rehearsals are full of ups and downs like that, one on day you struggle, and the next day you’re blown away. We had a moment like that where Hamlet just clicked. He was giving this moving, emotional speech. He was so engaged and involved in it, and he sank to his knees, and he was bringing in language from other parts of the play, he was on the floor. We all just wanted to cry.”

Jane also attributes the company’s success to William’s writing and adaptive skill. “He’s known them for such a long time. When he first wrote, he studied their speech patterns very carefully so he could work within their language. He did that for each individual actor.” William elaborates on this technique, tracing it back to “the first time I worked closely with the actors, on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We decided with that play that we would modernise the text, and I wrote very closely to the actors playing the roles. One of the actors always dreamed of being a pop star, so we wrote Hermia as a pop star, and we made the whole wedding of the king and queen a celebrity VIP wedding because everyone in the group was fascinated by celebrity and gossip. We made Demetrius a footballer because the actor playing him was obsessed with football! We kept it close to the actors and their wish fulfillment. When we started experimenting with giving them snatches of original speeches, the way they handled the original bits made us think that they could definitely handle a whole lot more. We were amazed by the potential they showed in that show and how well they dealt with the archaic language and more fanciful poetic forms. So when we came back to Shakespeare again we decided to use the original language. The actors responded so strongly to the original, unadulterated Hamlet. It was as if the sound and the rhythm of the language really unlocked something within them. When you work like this with Shakespeare, you realise that it’s the sounds within the language that give it such emotional depth. That is what the actors respond to when reading the lines, that is what allows them to perform without necessarily understanding the nuances of the lines’ meanings.”

Blue Apple, then, is changing lives. But not just for the actors. “I didn’t realise how much fun theatre is,” comments Jane, “and now having set it all up for everyone else I wish I could be on the stage too! I hadn’t realised what a miracle it is. The self-esteem that comes from it should be available to everyone. The actors on the tour are still very young and hopefully this could be a stepping-stone for them, and they might be spotted. Our show is going to be very beautiful, with lots of little touches of comedy. You can’t keep that out with our actors, they have an eye for the ironic!”

“I want every audience to be blown away,” William concludes. “I hope they will go home having been heartbroken and shattered, but incredibly moved, and given the release of tragedy. Above all, I hope that when they get home it suddenly occurs to them that they were watching people with learning disabilities, and how amazing that is in itself.”

Blue Apple’s Hamlet tours from 3 May to 7 July, visiting venues across the UK and premiering at the West End Arts Centre, Aldershot. For more information and tickets, visit the company’s website. 

Image credit: Hamlet in Love