Monday, February 15, 2016

Shakespeare in Sign Language

The play is a classic: William Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost.  But the way that UK-based company Deafinitely Theatre performed it in 2012 was an innovation.  This is the first full-length Shakespeare play to be translated and performed entirely in British Sign Language, or BSL.

And it wasn't performed on a small stage, either.  This BSL adaptation was performed at the famous Globe Theatre in London, as part of a program called Globe to Globe [PDF] in which thirty-seven plays were performed at the theater in thirty-seven different languages.

The play was performed by an all-deaf cast—a first for the Globe Theatre, according to director Paula Garfield.  The majority of the audience at the Globe performance were deaf as well.  Although music was played on stage throughout the show, the play was otherwise completely silent, with not a word spoken by any of the actors.

Translating the play from Shakespearian English to modern British was not an easy task.  The play is a comedy, a genre often especially hard to translate into other languages, and Love's Labour's Lost contains complex wordplay, Latin, and puns.  Deafinitely Theatre opted to translate the script first into modern English and then into BSL, preserving the meaning of the scenes rather than getting bogged down in attempting an exact translation.  Director Paula Garfield notes that it was particularly challenging for her, as she was not an expert on Shakespeare, but assistant director Andrew Muir and creative interpreter Kate Furby helped with translation.

An image of the English alphabet, with line drawings of hands above each letter.  The hands show the motions needed to form the British Sign Language alphabet.  Mostly black-and-white, the vowels are bright blue in both languages.
The British Sign Language alphabet. 
Image courtesy Cowplopmorris at en.wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons.

Furby says that the team had to explain the metaphors in the play as well, and uses the word "bound" as an example.  This word can have two meanings, she says, one literal and one metaphorical with more psychological connotations.  For cases like this, the team had to create a sign to show both meanings.

Director Paula Garfield estimates that just the process of going over the script took three to four months.  The next part was teaching the actors how to perform all of these translated signs, and a period of intensive rehearsals followed.  The production would be performed twice during the program at the Globe.

Although no recordings of Deafinitely Theatre's performances at the Globe were allowed, the interpretation received positive reviews.  Some glimpses of rehearsals can be seen in this video on the making of the production, from BSL Zone.

Actor Stephen Collins, who played the role of Ferdinand in the play, believes that their performance had a major impact in the field of deaf theater because it was at the renowned Globe Theatre.  Creative interpreter Kate Furby hopes that, in the future, more deaf people will be able to enjoy performances of Shakespeare's work.  Shakespeare is an important part of Britain's heritage, she says, and deaf people should be able to access it. 

You can learn more about Deafinitely Theatre on their website, in The Independent, in The Guardian, in Disability Arts Online, and from BSL Zone.

1 comment:

  1. Shakespeare in BSL dates back to at least the 1860s.