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British Sign Language at Shakespeare’s Globe

June 5, 2018
Photo Tristram Kenton .png
Nadia Nadarajah as Celia and Jack Laskey as Rosalind in As You Like It at Shakespeare’s Globe. Image credit: Tristram Kenton

Having recently watched A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed in German by the Deutsches Nationaltheater, and Pericles staged in French by Cheek by Jowl, it was something of a novelty to see As You Like It performed in English at Shakespeare’s Globe last month. I was there with a group of English Literature undergraduates from Cardiff University, which felt nicely appropriate given that the play is one of the Globe’s opening productions under the new artistic directorship of Michelle Terry, herself an English Literature alumna from Cardiff University. I say this was an English language performance of As You Like It, but it would perhaps be more accurate to call it a bilingual production, on account of the inspired casting of the wonderful Deaf actor Nadia Nadarajah and the interweaving of British Sign Language with Shakespeare’s text. Michelle Terry has said that diversity is an important part of her artistic vision for the Globe, and she has shown her commitment to gender blind, race blind and disability blind casting. And yet, the integration of British Sign Language into the Globe’s As You Like It was so effective that it went beyond questions of access and inclusivity, instead becoming an integral part of the performance.

Written and first performed around the year 1599, Shakespeare’s As You Like It features Rosalind, daughter of the exiled Duke, who falls in love with Orlando. Banished from her usurping uncle’s court, she disguises herself as a boy and escapes into the pastoral Forest of Arden with her cousin, Celia, and Touchstone, the clown. In the Globe production, Nadia Nadarajah takes the role of Celia, and Rosalind is played brilliantly by Jack Laskey. In Shakespeare’s play, the loving rapport between the two female cousins who have grown up together since childhood is established from the very beginning, and is integral to the plot. In the Globe production, this sisterly relationship has new life breathed into it through the wordless intimacy of British Sign Language. It is not the first time that the Globe has translated Shakespeare into British Sign Language. In 2012, Love’s Labour’s Lost was performed by Deafinitely Theatre, the UK’s leading Deaf theatre company, as part of a festival designed to celebrate Shakespeare across linguistic borders. The Artistic Director and co-founder of Deafinitely Theatre, Paula Garfield, has written eloquently about the challenges of translating Shakespeare into British Sign Language.

In the 2012 production, Nadia Nadarajah played the Princess of France, and she is equally mesmerising in As You Like It as Rosalind’s companion, Celia. Both her facial expressions and body language are immensely expressive, and there was plenty of laughter from the audience at the physical comedy of translating Shakespeare into visual metaphors. But it is the relationship between Nadarajah’s Celia and Laskey’s Rosalind that is at the emotional heart of this production. Their rapid exchanges in British Sign Language are incredibly moving and speak volumes as to the intuitive closeness of their rapport. By incorporating British Sign Language into the performance, Shakespeare’s Globe’s As You Like It also enriches many of the play’s other themes. This is after all a play which explores the means and limitations of social communication. Indeed, from Orlando’s shy inability to speak to Rosalind after the wrestling tournament, to the ridiculous love poetry he later hangs on the trees in the Forest of Arden, the figures on stage are often to be found grappling with the difficulties of meaningful interaction. Yet, in spite of the many complications, As You Like It also presents us with striking examples of identification and sympathy across boundaries. In the forest, for instance, the melancholy Jacques weeps with pity over the hunted deer, while the exiled Duke offers Adam and Orlando the unquestioning hospitality that they have been denied at court. More than other productions of the play that I have seen, the Globe’s As You Like It encourages its audience members to reflect critically on speech and silence, and how we express ourselves in different ways, and surely this can only be a good thing.

Dr Sophie Emma Battell teaches English Literature at Cardiff University. She is currently working on a monograph on hospitality in Shakespeare’s theatre.

 

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