Plays, Poems & New Writing
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Antony & Cleopatra – Meet the Team

Director Blanche McIntyre and Associate Director Charlotte Arrowsmith tell us how they’re approaching this production, before rehearsals start.

5 minute read

What draws you to the story of Antony & Cleopatra?

BM: I love the mixture of tragedy and irony in this story. Shakespeare presents two flawed people, acting in a way that feels flaky, self-destructive and theatrical. They throw away kingdoms for their love, and behave badly even in the love affair that they use to justify these actions. But somehow, through all the chaos, they still manage to achieve something transcendent.

CA: When Antony and Cleopatra meet, they are two twin flames. In our production, Antony communicates using Spoken English, and Cleopatra using British Sign Language (BSL). So when they communicate, they make sure their hearts are being seen, and not just heard.

I can immediately see the difficulties that such a hearing/deaf relationship will portray. Although Antony and Cleopatra each have power within their own countries (as rulers of Rome and Egypt respectively), the equality between the two is imbalanced. Generally, today, a hearing person will always have ‘one up’ on a deaf person as we all live in a hearing world. It’s the language difference, lack of respect for the culture, the barrier of one that doesn’t understand the other and vice versa. This causes friction, bitterness and frustration. A bilingual world is the goal, where everyone adapts equally and communicates freely. We hope to show this on-stage through Antony and Cleopatra’s love.

Why does this particular play lend itself so well to being bilingual?

CA: Antony and Cleopatra are lovers from two different cultures. They have different beliefs, different rules about how they communicate, and that shows up in their relationship. Society puts its walls up, builds barriers, uncomfortably rocked by differences they don’t understand.

BM: The context of the story is the clash of two great cultures and empires. Rome is young, macho, ‘in the head’, emotionally repressed, professional; Egypt is ancient, gender-equal, emotionally direct, culturally and materially rich, sexual, playful, confident but not warlike. And the failure of these two cultures to understand each other is one of the causes of the conflict between them.

CA: But if I’m being honest, any play, in any language, whether Shakespeare or not, can be bilingual, if the creatives know how to handle the story in that way. I have lived experience as a bilingual person, as I am a profoundly deaf fluent BSL user, as well as being able to speak clearly, and have acute lip-reading skills.

Headshots of Blanche McIntyre and Charlotte Arrowsmith

Director Blanche McIntyre (left) and Associate Director Charlotte Arrowsmith (right)

How have you approached translating the Shakespeare into BSL?

BM: We spent ten days with the d/Deaf members of the company, translating everything into modern English and then into BSL, with the help and advice of our brilliant BSL Consultant Daryl Jackson and our expert Text Consultant Giles Taylor. We finished the workshop with everything translated and filmed, so that we could use it as a resource in rehearsal. Of course I know the translation will evolve as we go, but it’s good to have a base to work from.

CA: Over the years, I have tried different ways to explore Shakespeare using BSL… There isn’t one simple way!

I usually get a modern English version to support the original, find picture story books, comic books, and research visual pieces and study notes on the play – to find a middle ground to the meaning of Shakespeare’s words. I try to read his work in pictures drawn in my mind, with the modern translation on hand to fill in missing gaps if the picture doesn’t fit. I then see how I would explain it in BSL today, interpret it as it were, to a fellow Deaf person. Once I felt that the interpretation is clear, can I then explore sign theatre and add the beauty of acting to emphasise the signs.

Translation also needs time to explore in the moment, in rehearsals, when exploring the characters intent, the direction, relationships with who I’m signing with and to… it needs that depth to get to the core of a true BSL translation.

Translating with BSL is not as straightforward as adjusting the tones to a voice, speaking the words aloud, navigating the breath control for certain pauses or emphasis, or focusing on prose vs verse, for example. It’s more hands on (pardon the pun!) and getting the picture/animation built up on a visual canvas in our mind, sometimes trying to actively draw it out and focusing on emotions and how to express it visually, and body language as if we were dancing, to animate the words to life. Only then can things start to make sense and be placed in all the right places. Phew!

Can you sum up the production?

BM: I like ‘a love that changed the world’. I also sometimes think of it as ‘when love meets grubby real life’ – but in an epic setting.

CA: Two cultures collide, meeting in a beautiful love story. Antony and Cleopatra are enthralled by their dreams, but these bring them danger, darkness and pain. Eventually the candle of love is blown out, bringing their peace and joy to a diminished end.