Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Globe, 22 May 2012
Deafinitely Theatre’s production of this verbally inventive play was the first ever full length Shakespeare performance in British Sign Language (BSL). As part of the Globe to Globe festival, it was more than just a different tongue: it offered a completely different way of speaking the speech.
As a courtesy to those in the audience who could hear, a band including Jon Whitton and Flora Curzon, played continuous background music on guitar, violin, cello, drum.
The performance began with a melee of couples flirting and canoodling as the King (Stephen Collins) looked on from the stage balcony refusing to join in. He suddenly brought the revelries to a halt, sending the women away. In his red jacket and gold top hat, the King was faintly reminiscent of Monopoly Man.
While much of the dialogue was impenetrable to a non-signer, there appeared to be a large amount of mime used to convey concepts. Much of this could be readily understood by both signers and non-signers, so that the meanings became accessible to everyone.
However, there was a general problem for those close to the stage. If two characters engaged in dialogue at opposite sides of the stage there were no audio cues to indicate the alternation between speakers. This made it quite easy to be looking in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It was relative simple to discern the meaning of hands outlining the curve of a woman’s body and similar miming of food being placed into the mouth, gestures made early on by cheeky Berowne (Matthew Gurney) describing the pleasures he was expected for forego when agreeing to spend three years studying in Navarre.
The oath that the men took was represented by the right hand being held aloft just as witnesses do in court.
Berowne also mimed the cutting of his own tongue when explaining the punishment set for women who came near the court.
Establishing himself as a lively and entertaining figure, he did an impression of the Princess when pointing out to the King that her arrival would inevitably oblige them all to break their strict oath.
The real Princess (Nadia Nadarajah) did indeed look particularly sour when presented with a small tent, which was intended as accommodation for her and her companions Rosaline (Charly Arrowsmith), Maria (Donna Mullings) and Katharine (Patricia Gorman).
It quickly became apparent that Rosaline, a tall, willowy figure in blue dungarees, was similar in character to Berowne. They shared the same effusive sarcasm and wit. The similarity of temperament hinted that they were made for each other.
Armado (Adam Bassett) wore a matador costume and made grandiloquent gestures to express that character’s florid style of speech. When Boyet (Brian Duffy) read Armado’s letter, he made a point of copying that style of gesture.
Cuts to characters meant that instead of Dull reading a letter from Armado about Jaquenetta (Patricia Gorman again) and Costard (David Sands), Armado spoke of their misdemeanour directly. She was also present and we saw her flirt with Armado and the beginnings of the Spaniard falling for her.
The part of Nathaniel was cut, leaving Holofernes (Vitalis Katakinas) without his intellectual co-mate. This enabled the production to avoid having to deal with the extensive wordplay based on the confusion between Latin and English (haud credo/old grey doe).
Costard’s coarse movements announced his low social status. Armado released him from his ankle shackle so that he could take a letter to Jaquenetta. He expressed great wonder when given his “remuneration”: a shiny gold coin that filled him with childish fascination. His joy was unbounded when Berowne paid him to take a letter to Rosaline with a “guerdon”: an entire money bag.
The departure of Costard to deliver his letters led into one of the production’s most poignant moments. As Berowne soliloquised that he was effectively a prisoner of love, he took Costard’s ankle shackle, attached it to his own leg and limped off stage.
One scene that was very easy to follow was the great comic set piece at the heart of the play, because, rarely in this play, the comedy was inherent in the staging rather than in the language. The scholars appeared in turn, each declaring their affection for their beloved and then hiding from the next to enter until all were on stage.
Each came out of hiding from behind the pillars, or from their fixed pose as a tree, in a hypocritical challenge to their counterpart, until Berowne was left mocking all the others for their lack of resolve. But then his love letter was brought comically to everyone’s attention by Jaquenetta.
With the pretence of fidelity to their oath fallen by the wayside, they all swore again to repeal their original oath. This was represented in mime by them all holding their hands up in the original oath gesture and then bending the arm at the elbow until it was parallel with the ground.
The band began to play “Kalinka” when the men appeared disguised as Russians goose stepping in fur hats. They mimed the various stages of their long journey, which involved walking, canoeing and mountain climbing.
When the King realised he had been tricked into swearing his love to Rosaline rather than the Princess, there was something quite puppyish and pleading about his lost little face. The women in general had triumphed over them and their pretensions, mocking the scholars with their own oath gesture when first receiving their declarations of love, reminding them of what they had originally sworn to.
There were lots of bow and arrow gestures, hearts held in hands and then offered to loves as the men became passionate.
The comic Nine Worthies show was heralded by the band playing the theme from The Ride of the Valkyries, with Holofernes being roundly mocked for not having an abdomen anything like the armoured one he wore to present Hector.
The production saved the best for last. The songs of Hiems and Ver were delivered Armado and assisted by the entire cast. He used his fingers to indicate a plant sprouting up through the ground, then growing into a full-size plant, and birds fluttered. The onset of winter saw mimed rainfall as the cast shivered to indicate the cold.
The unified performance by the entire cast made it particularly moving.
The production ended to great applause, which in the case of the deaf spectators involved holding both hands in the air and waggling the palms.
The signing in the performance could only be properly viewed by those directly in front of the stage. This meant that those at the sides, particularly those in wheelchairs in one of the Gentlemen’s Rooms, had problems because of the sightlines. One particular school party solved this problem by moving from their seats at the side of the lower gallery and viewing from the yard. This should obviously be taken into account for future signed performances.