I do not think I have ever seen a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where the show is stolen so completely by the human characters as it is in this version by Deafinitely, performed in British Sign Language.
This is thanks to the lovers’ and mechanicals’ perfectly timed physical comedy; throughout the production, the cast use small, powerful visual cues drawn from keen observation of day to day life whilst ensuring that their characters are very rich ones too. While the performances gesture towards modern cultural stereotypes, they are never mastered by them. Fifi Garfield’s wonderfully fervent Hermia, for instance, insists on wearing her smart heels and carrying a huge purple bag from the department store Liberty for a night wandering the woods. When Demetrius (played with a fantastic mix of reserve and brashness by the comedian Lee Robertson which perfectly conjures the character’s wavering sense of entitlement) smooths his already rigidly-Brylcreemed helmet of hair to indicate that he is Hermia’s father’s favoured suitor, his timing is such that this stock gesture becomes both hilarious and revealing.
Hippolyta and Theseus (played by Nadia Nadarajah and Ace Mahbaz, who also double up as the fairy king and queen) are bank CEOs effecting a strategic marriage-slash-business merger. Garfield’s decision to make the ‘mechanicals’ into a group of officious middle managers with too much time on their hands and pretensions that soar above their current station, is spot on, especially when it comes to the incessant power-struggle between Quince (Ralph Bogard) and Bottom (David Sands). Their bureaucratic sub-culture is milked for all the humour possible. Jason Taylor is superbly fussy and prudish as Francis Flute, and I particularly enjoyed the Lion (Anna-Maria Nabirye) taking her office ID card out of the neck of her lion-costume to show each of us laboriously in turn that she is in fact Snug the Joiner. Her air of learned obligingness was both perfectly redolent of over-zealous customer service personnel and got right to the kernel of the absurdity of Snug assiduously telling the audience, in the original text, ‘know that I, one Snug the joiner, am/A lion fell’.
Nabirye and Alim Jayda play the Fairy and Puck with a Peter Pan-like sense of being eternal children rather than (as these characters often are) overlooking human folly with a knowing, ironic gaze. If it is the human world that demands our focus and provides the comedy in this production, I feel this is partly because the fairies are present from the beginning of the play, rollicking on a sunken, leaf-twined bed on the floor of Theseus’ Bank of Athens.
Productions of Dream often begin with the soap-opera of human relationships, creating a stark contrast between the human and fairy worlds by introducing the fairies only much later, usually with the arrival of Puck in Act 2. But Garfield’s production presents fairyland as a continuous shadow-counterpart to the real business of human life. This impression is bolstered by the fact that the fairies, both hearing actors, tend to play the roles of interpreters, occasionally translating snippets of dialogue between signing characters into spoken English for the non-signing audience, mimicking the humans’ gestures as they do so. A sense that the fairies saw that the most fun was to be had in the human world, and were eager to join in and blend in there, pervaded this production: Nabirye’s wonderfully silly Fairy is as buoyant as a puppy at the prospect of donning a blazer to join the mechanicals.
This production’s mixture of British Sign Language, visual vernacular, and other visual storytelling (always arresting even to this non-signer, though I definitely understood the sign Quince was using for ‘Bottom’), and its continual, gently atmospheric background music, perfectly encapsulates Deafinitely’s mission to provide a theatrical experience that is inclusive of both Deaf and hearing people, and both those fluent in British Sign Language and those who cannot sign.
Interestingly, the moments when I felt the audience most came together were when the converse was true of the characters: when the mechanicals made visible the gap between the Deaf and hearing characters among them. Here, moments of misunderstanding or wilful misinterpretation were a delightfully innovative way of bringing out the humour in what Shakespeare intended to be a hashed, misread, and atrociously acted play-within-a-play.
The Deaf Bottom and the hearing Quince (who struggles to sign fluently, just as in Shakespeare’s original text he struggles to deliver a coherent Prologue), translate their struggle for supremacy in the petty world of middle management into a hilarious battle between spoken English and British Sign Language, for instance.
The moment when the audience laughs most, is when Snug, as the Lion, stands behind Flute/Thisbe, roaring as loudly as she can. Flute, a Deaf character, does not hear her, and continues whimsically and happily playing with his blonde wig. Eventually, the Lion has to tap Flute on the shoulder so that he can see her roaring at him and react with appropriate terror. This joke encapsulates the cast’s capacity for visual comedy, and their ability to play foolish mortals with a rare acuity.