British Sign Language and Shakespeare

Whisper #70

On the first day of rehearsals at the beginning of January, we had a new member join our company. Her name was Becky Barry and she had come to work with us as our British Sign Language interpreter for the Hamlet tour. It was already unusual to see her so early and I was curious as to why she was there. The date for our first interpreted performance was the final Friday night in Manchester. We were to have one interpreted performance in each venue of the tour but, I must confess, I assumed it was to be an experience that I have had before. But this performance became so much more for me and the rest of the Hamlet company. 

Every now and again in our two-and-a-half-week rehearsal period, Becky would sit furiously writing notes and watching us intently. She seemed to be keenly grappling in her own way with Shakespeare whilst we did the same. I asked her what her process was, and she said that she was looking for visual metaphors and balancing the poetry of Shakespeare with clarity of storytelling. She was also working on a new element we would know more about soon. 

Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet on stage with Becky Barry, the British Sign Language interpreter
Becky onstage with Paapa Essiedu.

The RSC began semi-integrated signed performances in 2014. Erica Whyman, the RSC's Deputy Artistic Director, has long been a champion of accessible performance and Becky, who fully qualified as an interpreter in 2011, was brought in to interpret on semi-integrated performances after doing educational workshops with D/deaf* students and teachers. She also acted as interpreter on the plays broadcast into schools. 

The enormity of the job Becky was doing began to hit home in the technical rehearsal that we had all day long on the final Friday in Manchester. Anna Girvan, our assistant director, was in charge, and we were all uncertain about how we would be spending the day. We began by standing in a circle. Becky explained why we were there, saying that the more familiar method of interpreted performance (where the interpreter is separate from the action on stage) had come into question and that the RSC were going to try a bold new model of integration. This meant that we had to go through the entire play all day and, with Anna’s help, integrate Becky directly into the performance. She wasn’t to be an interpreter separate from the action but another character placed into the scenes. This obviously was why it would take all day. The whole idea is geared towards stopping that disconnect that D/deaf audience members may face when watching interpreted theatre: they have to either look at the action happening on stage and miss the interpretation or look at the interpreter and miss the action.

British Sign Language interpreter Becky Barry performs on stage in front of a red mural
Becky performs on the Hamlet tour.

Firstly, we went through all our character names in sign language. Becky had come around to us in rehearsals to discuss what best represented our names. I mainly play a long-standing servant who has served the old king and now the new. I had named the servant Percy as he doesn’t really exist in the Shakespeare play, and Becky came up with the appropriate sign language: palms up, you take your hands over your right shoulder indicating the past and move both hands forward in front of you to indicate continued service. Another great one was Polonius - a letter P indicated by both hands in a P shape and then moving down three buttons on his jacket to indicate a man of business and the costume that Joe Mydell wears. Becky let us know that she would not use names all the time but only when we were introduced for the first time or when a name was mentioned in the script. It made us all laugh as we tried out everyone’s names. This sparked a conversation about how we might incorporate sign language into the play as we spoke. There was excitement in the company to give it a try. 

All day we slowly went through the play, essentially 'teching' Becky into it. We referenced her often and even shared moments of intimacy with her. She was not to be invisible. She was placed directly into the performance and so remained for the entire show in the main focal points. Becky was referenced and used in soliloquies as if she were an audience member but closer to the action. It took some time to get used to having another body on stage but once we figured out how Becky was going to be in a scene there was always a way found to integrate her. For example, in the scene near the end of the play when Osric approaches Hamlet with Claudius’ wager for the fight, Osric, played by Esther Niles, is teased with whether or not it is too warm to wear her hat. We incorporated Becky by having Osric place the hat on her head while she continued to interpret the scene. 

Becky Barry on stage with the cast of Hamlet
The cast of Hamlet perform with Becky.

There was a palpable excitement amongst the actors and so an idea came about that we might help Becky by integrating some sign language into our own performances at certain key moments. This idea was welcomed, and Becky taught many actors a few signs whilst they said their lines. We now have a moment in the play that the players do every night that came out of this. When the player King starts talking about the “Mobled Queen” all the players make the sign for 'veiled', which is what ‘mobled’ means. We all learnt how to say ‘Thank you for coming’ from Becky and we did it after our bows before leaving the stage. It was greeted with much waving of hands in the air - the BSL equivalent of clapping. Integrating Becky helped with our own assumed and limited awareness of issues for a D/deaf audience and inspired us to try and help the cause by getting far more involved with the interpreter than we have before. 

Becky is a hearing woman from a hearing family with spoken English as her first language. She makes it quite clear that she does not represent the culture of Deafness but believes passionately in engagement for D/deaf audiences with the arts. BSL does not belong to her but she can act as an accessibility link for a D/deaf audience. She completely believes in the philosophy of Jenny Sealey, the Artistic Director of Graeae Theatre Company, that “access is everyone's responsibility.” She has been overwhelmed by how the Hamlet company and RSC have embraced the idea, and also excited by the audience reaction to the interpreted performances. I will provide you all with feedback from audience members on these shows in upcoming blogs. 

 

* 'D/deaf' is a term used to represent both people who identify as culturally deaf and whose deafness is a significant part of their identity (Deaf), and those who view their hearing loss as largely a medical issue (deaf).

Byron Mondahl

Byron Mondahl

Byron Mondahl is an actor who enjoys thinking about and writing about the elusive art of acting. He is from South Africa where he first began acting but has lived in the UK since 2005 when he studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. He has taught English in Taiwan, and also lost six stone and transformed his life for the better. Follow him on Twitter @ByronMondahl

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