Performing Shakespeare in British Sign Language

Why the Shakespeare Synopsis Project aims to create a filmed synopsis for every one of Shakespeare’s plays

3 minute read

To celebrate International Week of the Deaf (24–30 September 2018) we have been working with Deaf audiences and theatre-makers to make Shakespeare more accessible to everyone.

Richard Katz, Nadia Nadarajah and James Garnon in As You Like it, 2019. Photographed by Tristram Kenton.

We are committed to improving accessibility for all throughout our work, both on and off stage,

When we realised that there were far fewer Deaf people attending the lesser-known Shakespeare plays we wanted to talk with Deaf audience members and actors to find out why…

Director: Sophie Stone. Actors: Charlotte Arrowsmith, Ace Mahbaz. Camera: Ted Evans.

‘Who owns culture?’

Thanks to funding from 2016 ICAP Charity Day, we were able to work with a variety of Deaf theatre artists and audience members to deliver workshops in which we asked, who owns culture? And, what are the barriers Deaf people have faced, and still face in engaging with Shakespeare’s works?

Over four days, we looked at the way in which Shakespeare has been taught to Deaf children over generations, how theatres have varied greatly in the provision of access to Deaf patrons, and how opportunities for Deaf actors and writers to work in theatres have been limited. The way in which roles shift means that BSL users inhabit various characters, making it a naturally dramatic language.

From the workshops, it was clear the only way to open Shakespeare up for the Deaf community was to give them ownership of his work; Deaf people had to tell Shakespeare’s stories for Deaf audiences. It was agreed that the best way that Shakespeare’s Globe could facilitate this, was to create a series of video synopses, one for each of the plays in the complete works.

Sophie Stone (Lady Margaret Clifford) in Emilia, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 2018. Photo credit: Helen Murray

Director: Paula Garfield, Deafinitely Theatre. Actors: Fifi Garfield, Julian Peedle-Calloo. Camera: Ted Evans.

For the BSL synopsis project, we asked Deaf directors, editors, actors and camera crew to explore what the scripts mean for them. Paula Garfield, Artistic director of Deafinitely Theatre took on the challenge of telling the story of Hamlet in a short film, and Sophie Stone directed our synopsis of Macbeth.

The project is continually raising questions not just about Early Modern texts but also about the relationship between Deaf and hearing people in society and how theatre culture is not owned by any one person or group of people.

A woman stands on stage and uses her hands to sign a performance in the Globe Theatre

A signed performance in the Globe Theatre.

‘Natural story-telling and poetic imagery are inherent in British Sign Language.’

Our aim is to create a filmed synopsis for every one of Shakespeare’s plays, in the hope that giving Deaf people full ownership and control of the stories will further open them up to the Deaf community.

We believe that these films can be beneficial to everyone, Deaf and hearing, from theatre attendees to English students, people with a passing interest in Shakespeare right through to Bardophiles.