Love’s Labour’s Lost by Deafinitely Theatre

It was changeover time at Bankside on a sunny May afternoon: clusters of Asian audience members smilingly discussed a Gujarati performance of All’s Well That Ends Well in the street, while, alongside me in the foyer, a customer signed to his companion and held up his smartphone screen to the box office staff to request tickets for a pre-show discussion of the British Sign Language production of Love’s Labour’s Lost.  Clearly, the ‘Globe to Globe’ festival not only showcases different languages, but attracts multiple audiences, its temporary, theatrical communities standing in for larger groups.  More local than global, British Sign Language, unlike many of the other languages represented at the festival, was not from a distant geographical location, yet it was foreign to much of its audience, with its own politics and motivations for taking up this unusual Shakespearean challenge.

London-based Deafinitely Theatre explained their approach to the play before the show.  With relatively little Shakespeare experience, the director, Paula Garfield, had one colleague ‘translate’ the play into modern English, and another translate it again into BSL ‘equivalents’.  Told what the director was trying to get out of a scene, the actors then created their signs, which were filmed and committed to memory.  While the result might seem to be several removes from Shakespeare’s language, the director did not want this to be a ‘sign-supported English’ production, dutifully interpreting every word of the play, but rather, something with the freedom to be genuinely BSL.  What it did capture, the director’s team hoped, was the truth, feeling and poetry of the original.

How, visitors to the pre-show talk asked, would this come across on stage?  Would a hearing audience understand it as well as a Deaf audience?  Or, as one Deaf audience member asked, would it be easier to understand than Shakespeare?  These questions seemed suddenly urgent in a sprawling opening scene where the cast improvised drunken debauchery to the backing of a merry folk tune, and the King of Navarre signed down reproachfully from the balcony to the scattered party: amidst all this visual noise, where should the audience look first?  Yet as the King stepped forward from a neat row of Lords and signed out his plans for the next three years’ study – with unmistakable gestures for ‘not to see a woman in that term’ getting a big laugh with every repetition by Berowne, Dumaine and Longaville – things became clearer, no small thanks to the surtitles.

A certain amount of signing straight ahead while other characters looked on was necessary for clarity, but the production was at its strongest in the more dynamic set-pieces that utilised the whole of the stage space.  Overhearing – or rather, seeing – from behind the stage pillars their expansive declarations of love, Berowne et al first unconsciously echoed, and then vigorously parodied, one another in their visual gestures, before being revealed as identically smitten; later, they brought the house down as swimming Russians.

Matthew Gurney’s Berowne was urgent and compelling in his signing, even if his relationship with an arrestingly tall and expressive Rosaline (Charly Arrowsmith) only latterly transcended cross-stage gestures of contempt.  Nadia Nadarajah, a less experienced actor with a background in presenting, made a gentle, retiring Princess, while Maria and Katherine doubled as Moth and Jacquenetta respectively, their body language switching appropriately.  Boyet (Brian Duffy) and Costard (David Sands) brought energy to the stage, and Adam Bassett’s Don Armado was captivating to watch, though his eloquent movements, reliably accompanied with Spanish music, made him more sympathetic than ridiculous.

The final scenes, as the lords made their vows, included new, gentler gestures of love: after their expansive professions, these private signs were face-to-face and heart-to-heart.  This earnestly romantic ending might not have been able to include metatheatrical commentary on the play (‘Jack hath not Jill’), nor critique of its verbal excesses, but it had a sincerity that can easily be skimmed over in the rapid-fire wrap-up of spoken productions.  The play ended with a beautiful signing of ‘Spring and Winter’ by Armado, who tenderly enacted the growth of flowers and the behaviour of people and animals in heat and in cold.  This lyrical finale, my BSL-speaking companion informed me, evoked BSL’s poetic tradition, in which sequences of signs are selected to flow beautifully from one into another, creating patterns like alliteration.  As the rest of the company amplified Armado’s movements with symbols of rain and sun, one was left wishing that the play might have been more frequently interspersed with such directly poetic moments, as well as capturing the energy and emotion of the action.  Evoking the thickly piled extended metaphors and puns might be an impossible challenge, but this was a moment of genuine ‘equivalence’ to Shakespeare’s language.

Other plays in the festival have relied on gesture to make their plays legible to non-native audiences; and this production might be seen as only a more extreme version of the kind of spelling out of meanings that can take place in all kinds of contemporary performance, Love’s Labour’s Lost productions often using exaggerated physical innuendo to carry audiences through the swathes of Latin puns.  (Indeed, for those wondering about how the Latin translated, most of Holofernes’ part was cut.)

The evening ended in a harmonious vision of hands clapped and palms waved in rapturous applause.  Yet the director spoke of scant Shakespeare experiences for Deaf actors, and felt that the production should not be compromised by being oriented to a hearing audience (the concession being the constant musical accompaniment that signposted every mood change as if in a silent film).  The excitement palpable in the Globe last night – from the gestures of friends across the yard before the play started, to the cast hovering on stage and waving to their families at the end – might owe less to the play than to the rare opportunity for sign language to take centre stage at the Globe, with Deafinitely Theatre enacting the mastery of Shakespeare, symbol of both mainstream theatre and mainstream education.  It invited other audience members present to consider whether apparently unquestionable values, such as the sacredness of Shakespeare’s language, or his centrality in education, are quite as globally inclusive as they seem.

 

Dr. Kate Rumbold 
Lecturer in English Literature, Department of English, School of English, Drama and American & Canadian Studies 
University of Birmingham