Review: Deafinitely Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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David Sands (Bottom) and Alim Jayda (Puck). Photo by Simon Kane

Following the success of Deafinitely Theatre’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost as part of the 2012 Globe to Globe project, they return to Shakespeare’s Globe with a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in British Sign Language, until 7 June. Review by Melissa Mostyn

This is an edited version of the review that originally appeared on Disability Arts Online on 5th June 2014.

 

The condensed air of high summer has a knack of filling us with unrequited longing, so that upon nightfall, we grow misty-eyed. It is no coincidence that A Midsummer Night’s Dream – one of Shakespeare’s most delightful romantic comedies – makes ideal viewing in a reconstructed amphitheatre close to a warm June sunset.

Not so easy to reconcile is the idea of presenting bona fide Shakespeare and its many allusions in British Sign Language, and in a manner that befits monumental raked seating like that of the Globe Theatre. Yet that is exactly what Deafinitely Theatre’s bold and dexterous production has achieved, mixing in not just spoken English and BSL but also Visual Vernacular – a highly innovative visual storytelling method derived from intrinsic sign language culture – song, music, and dance to intoxicating effect.

Central to the play is the story of four real-world lovers: Lysander (Adam Bassett) and Hermia (Fifi Garfield) who love each other, Demetrius (Lee Robertson) who loves Hermia, and Helena (Charlotte Arrowsmith) who loves Demetrius. Providing the play’s bookends is the wedding of Duke Theseus (Ace Mahbaz) and Hippolyta (Nadia Nadarajah) which brings all the characters together in the end with its festivities.

Hermia’s father Egeus (Ralph Bogard) wants her to marry Demetrius or else die or be a nun, and asks Theseus for permission to instrument her fate. Dismayed, Hermia and Lysander elope to the forest, but not before Hermia confides in best friend Helena. Hoping to gain Demetrius’ love, Helena reveals their plans to him, but he rejects her in dogged pursuit of Hermia.

Flitting in between the lovers are a group of gormless tradesmen rehearsing a play for Theseus – including Nick Bottom (David Sands) and Francis Flute (Jason Taylor) – and the fairies, representing the otherworld: king Oberon, furious with his queen Titania (here Mahbaz and Nadarajah become the real world’s alter-egos) for stealing a boy changeling and seeking revenge. He sends Puck (Alim Jayda, nimble as a Nijinsky-meets-Peter Pan) to cast a spell on the sleeping Titania, ensuring that she falls for the first person she sees upon awakening.

Puck being Puck, the mischief-making goes further than it should, with both Demetrius and Lysander chasing a witless Helena, Bottom (by now an ass) becoming the perplexed object of Titania’s affections, and the jilted Hermia throwing hilariously enraged punches with her two hitherto lovers. Towering over them all is a charismatic Mahbaz as Oberon and Theseus, both desperate to regain order in the worlds they govern.

The inevitable happy outcome becomes an excuse for a play-within-a-play, where Sands (his Bottom having regained human form) and Taylor, flouncing in a blonde wig and girly dress, mirror Lysander and Hermia’s story as convivial lovers trying to communicate via a makeshift wall. Punching out a brick, so they could poke out their arms and sign to each other, has never looked so funny or picture-perfect.

As if the concoction couldn’t seduce us enough, Peter Burgess dresses the characters in a contemporary time-warp of banker pinstripes, avant-garde foliage, Edwardian skirts and dandy waistcoats festooned with ties. Was that a mosquito bite I swatted from my ankle at the end, or Puck’s tickle? Swayed by the musk of a gentle summer’s night, I could not be sure.

Review: Frozen, by fingersmiths

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Originally developed at the National Theatre Studio, ‘Frozen’ sees a cast of Deaf and hearing actors bring fingersmiths’ visual and physical theatre style to the stage, in the first major production of the play in 10 years.

Originally published on Disability Arts Online, 9 March 2014

[I write as a member of Deafinitely Theatre’s HUB, some of whom saw the play at Stratford Circus and took part in a group critique of Frozen after the performance.]

Right from the offset, you know that Frozen is going to be a hard-hitting psychological drama. As the lights go up you are confronted by a compact, split-level set, all harsh white angles everywhere that set you on edge.

You don’t feel in harmony with what you’re seeing; no flowers or homely living-room paraphernalia to make you feel like a cup of tea. Thus the scene is set for a contemporary piece of theatre that keeps your nerves fraying throughout.

Frozen explores issues arising from the abduction and murder of a 10-year-old girl, Rhona, and how the crime ‘freezes’ the three main characters – Ralph, the girl’s killer, Nancy, her mother, and Agnetha, a criminal psychologist – into states of fraught emotional paralysis from which they are unable to escape.

A vivid, gut-wrenching and complex drama, Frozen also highlights the challenges in determining whether a crime should be treated as a sin or a symptom of mental health issues (Ralph is himself a victim of paternal child abuse). A large chunk of the play is dedicated to monologues, enabling insight into the characters’ changing thought processes as they struggle to make peace with their individual pain.

Eventually the monologues draw the characters together in raw symbiosis via one-to-one meetings. The final thaw-out is provided when Nancy visits Ralph in prison years later, with three simple-yet-hard words – ‘I forgive you’ – unleashing an extraordinary change in the serial killer.

In the hands of Fingersmiths, Frozen went smoothly from a three-hander to a bilingual ensemble of six without losing its edge, due to a high-calibre cast that kept us gripped all the way through. Detailing exactly what each actor excelled at is impossible given the talent involved, but Mike Hugo and Neil Fox-Roberts (both of whom played Ralph) and Hazel Maycock, as the speaking Nancy to Jean St Clair’s BSL counterpart, were flawless.

In bilingual Deaf theatre, the idea of having characters in duplicate – one signing, one speaking – is not new. I liked the way the pairs interacted with each other symbolising an internal dialogue, but the decision to move away from mirroring each other as well didn’t always quite work.

By entering the stage independently of each other and on different floors at the beginning, the two tightly-suited Agnethas (Sophie Stone and Deepa Shastri), highlighted the sense of each being alone in separate homes. This left me slightly confused as to whether they were playing the same character, or just happened to have synchronised thoughts and actions as different people.

The two Ralphs were more successful with the BSL-using aspect (Fox-Roberts) pointing nonchalantly at the tattoos of his speaking counterpart (Hugo) while the latter recalled their history.

I welcomed the approach as a refreshing and bold experiment in theatrical dynamics.