Stage, Theatre & TV31st January 2016

Semi-integrated BSL show, significantly improves enjoyment of Deaf audience

Having a BSL interpreter on stage and moving around the set, is a step up in accessible live shows

by Sarah Lawrence, Editor

With the fully integrated BSL translation in the RSC’s Jew of Malta still fresh in my mind, I set off once again for the home of Shakespeare, looking forward to my first experience of a ‘semi integrated’ show. Wendy and Peter Pan had been in my diary for some time, and with the 20th January fast approaching, I was delighted to once again get a BSL video from the interpreter Clare Edwards telling me a little about the show and the ‘sign names’ she had given to each of the characters involved. As pre-information to help me get the most out of the performance, it was thoughtful and much appreciated.

Heading across county, I planned to arrive early, to enjoy a pre-show dinner with a few of my BSL students who had also obtained tickets. Enjoying a lovely Italian meal and a glass of Prosecco, I arrived at the theatre in plenty of time to take my seat. Whilst the corridors of the Royal Shakespeare Company building can be a little dark, signage is excellent, and it was easy to find the entrance printed on my ticket. Taking my seat in the stalls, directly in front of the stage, I was pleased to see signed conversations taking place on all sides of the theatre. I could see the orchestra playing, but unlike the music in The Jew of Malta, which was designed to create vibrations that I could feel, my colleague let me know that the music was light and whimsical so I was unable to feel it.

With a dimming of the lights, I knew the show was about to begin, with a bedroom set on stage ready to get us underway. All about children at night-time, the interpreter came into light standing on one of the four beds, right at the front of the stage. Dressed in night clothes, she was a character on the set, the only difference being she was signing what the other characters were saying, expertly letting me know which character was talking through a slight change in her character and superb use of role-shift. Her sign language was high quality and her range of non-verbal skills, easily letting me know what was going on. I instantly relaxed into the show, safe in the knowledge that Clare would be doing everything possible to assist all the Deaf people in the audience.

Frenetic at times in the first half of the show, Clare moved around the stage, strategically placing herself in different locations to help her interpret the show. At times, this meant she was on the opposite side of the stage to the action, making it impossible to watch both at the same time, but this did not detract from my enjoyment. It also meant there were times when I did not have clear line of sight to the interpreter, with Deaf people in the audience sometimes craning their necks to be able to see, but with a fast flowing show, this was still a lot better than simply having an interpreter standing in the wings of the stage, or having to try and follow captions. The story of Wendy and Peter Pan was easily enough to follow throughout.

Based in a night-time bedroom, lighting on stage in the first half of the show was sometimes dim, and this did make it difficult to see all of the interpreter’s communication, especially facial expression. Lighting during the second half seemed far better and was far more visually pleasing.

As you would expect with an RSC show, the actors were excellent, with Mariah Gale as Wendy and Rhys Rusbatch playing Peter Pan, excelling in their roles. Mariah’s facial expression throughout the show was simply wonderful, and through her superb characterisation of Wendy, I felt every emotion she went through as the story unfolded.

This was a visually stimulating show, with the stage in the second half lifting to take us to the high jinks and joyity of Neverland, a place where lost boys never grow up. Whilst the first half saw Peter Pan flying into and back out of the scenes, the second half saw far more flying activity, making it more difficult to watch the interpreter, but adding hugely to my visual enjoyment of the show. Charlotte Mills playing the larger than life fairie Tink, kept me smiling throughout with her earthy commentary, whereas Mimi Ndiweni playing Tiger Lilly, gave me a good dose of girl power.

One of the most visually appealing parts of the show came in the shape of the Crocodile, who constantly threatened the well-being of Captain Hook. Played by an under-study on the night, the visual representation of the shape and movement of a crocodile was simply stunning, and when he moved across the stage using a series of the splits, a “wow” left my lips, a quite superb and almost unbelievable display of suppleness.

The transitioning of the stage from being bare to lifting into the boisterous set of Neverland, was one of three highly visual and most enjoyable parts of the second half of the show, with Captain Hook’s ship moving on and off stage providing great appeal, and the aerial show of Peter Pan and other’s also providing tremendous enjoyment.

An interesting character came in the shape of Martin, one of the pirates and played by Benidorm star Adam Gillen. Low key in the first half, his character grew in the second, adding humour in a style that was in-keeping with his TV role.

Mention should also be made of the actors performing the role of Shadows in the show. With little fuss they expertly hooked and unhooked the main characters from their aerial ropes, changed the set and almost invisibly carried characters off stage.

Ultimately, this show was about flights of fancy, the power of imagination, magic and ever-lasting childhood, but it was also about coming to terms with a loss in the family and the importance of family. The story was expertly played by the whole cast, and superbly told by Wendy.

Despite working on her own throughout the whole show, and interpreting the lines of every character on stage, Clare maintained her high quality of signing right the way throughout. At the end of the show, I expected her to crumble in an exhausted heap on the floor, but she came out for the after show chat to the cast and amazingly looked as fresh as a daisy.

Staying behind for the meet the cast Q & A after the show, I asked Associate Director James Blakey whether these ‘accessible’ shows were something he felt he wanted to do or that he had to do. “For me hopefully, it is both,” he replied. “Part of my role in taking the job was was to work with Clare and deliver this part of the show, but it turned out to be a joyful experience.”

Working so seamlessly on stage with the other actors, the interpreter Clare Edwards was asked how long she had had to rehearse with the cast. Causing gasps of awe amongst the audience who stayed behind, Clare explained that she had only started working directly with the cast the afternoon before this show. Asked whether there was anything else she would have liked to have added to her role, Clare said, “I asked if I could try signing and flying at the same time, but every time I asked, the answer was the same – they wouldn’t let me.”

As a first experience of a semi-integrated BSL show, I left the Theatre thoroughly entertained and feeling that the RSC had once again tried really hard to give me a show I could enjoy as a Deaf theatre-goer. Did I have perfect line of sight to the interpreter all the way through – no I didn’t. Could I take in the whole show and the interpretation at the same time, all the way through – no I couldn’t. Did that detract from my enjoyment – not at all. This was a lovely evening out, one that I was able to enjoy equally with some of my BSL students who both enjoyed the show and learned something new about the integration of my language into every day life.

There were several stars of the show, but for me, Clare was amongst them! Thank you RSC.

Article by Sarah Lawrence, Editor

posted in Entertainment / Stage, Theatre & TV

31st January 2016