A Midsummer Night’s Dream- In British Sign Language

As seen in The Globe Theatre, London, England
Written by William Shakespeare
3 June 2014
“Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

When I was looking over the program of plays showing at The Globe Theatre, I saw that there was going to be a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in British Sign Language (BSL), and it intrigued me. It took me a week to decide if I really wanted to go or not. I do not speak any BSL, and only a little American Sign Language (ASL), but I do read lips a little. I also knew that The Globe has had many performances in other languages, and that they try to provide some context to the audience, so between that and my familiarity with the text, I thought I could handle it. It wasn’t until I was standing in the crowd waiting for the play to start that I truly began to realize how different this performance would have to be.

For those who are unfamiliar, A Midsummer’s Night Dream is one of William Shakespeare’s more famous comedies. The play starts with the Duke of Athens, Theseus, talking about his upcoming nuptials with Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons. They are interrupted by the arrival of Egeus, and the youths, Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius. Egeus is the father of Hermia, and wants her to marry Demetrius, who says he loves Hermia. Hermia however is in love with Lysander who also loves her. Egues demands the right under the laws of Athens that if Hermia refuses his choice, she is to face either death or becoming a nun. The Duke agrees with Egeus and gives Hermia until his wedding to decide. The Duke also pulls Demetrius aside to talk to him about his former love to Helena, who still loves Demetrius. Lysander and Hermia decide to run away to Lysander’s widowed aunt who lives outside of Athens, and there they will be married. They agree to meet in the forest, and tell their plans to Helena. Helena agrees to keep their silence, but then decides to tell Demetrius to try and win back his love. Instead he goes after the lovers, and Helena goes after him. At the same time a group of local workers decide to put on a play for the Duke, and begin to rehearse the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, in the same woods that the lovers have run off to.

However, there is turmoil in the woods as Oberon, the king of the Fairies, and his queen, Titania, are feuding. Titania has an Indian boy that was entrusted in her care, and Oberon wants the child, but Titania refuses. So Oberon with the help of Puck, his fairy servant, places a flower’s juice on Titania’s eyes that will make her fall in love with whatever she see first upon wakening, even if it is a monster. Having run across Demetrius being mean to Helena, Oberon orders Puck to do the same to Demetrius, and make sure Helena is the next person he sees. However, Puck accidentally mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, and Lysander wakes and falls for Helena. When he corrects this and puts the drops on Demetrius’s eyes, then both men are in love with Helena and not Hermia. This leads to fighting amongst all four until Puck gets them all to sleep and fixes Lysander’s eyes. Meanwhile the players tried to rehearse their play, but their boisterous lead, Nick Bottom, is turned into a half-donkey by Puck, who is playing a joke. The others run off, but Bottom stumbles across the Titana. She instantly falls in love with him and starts to lavish him with attention. After Oberon has received the child, he frees Titania and she and Oberon get over their feud, and Bottom is returned to his normal appearance. The Duke and Hippolyta come across the four lovers in the woods, and Egues, who is with the Duke, demands Hermia decide. However, Demetrius backs out saying he love Helena, and the Duke pleased by this decides the two young couples will be married along with him and Hippolyta. Later the three couples sit down to watch the play about Pyramus and Thisbe, and it is horrible but causes them to laugh. The couples however decline to see the encore and decide to all retire to sleep, whereupon Titania and Oberon bless all the couples.

I really enjoyed this production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Even though the play was in BSL, I was able to follow along rather nicely. To be fair, I am very familiar with the plot, and I also re-read the play right before I saw the production. The majority of the play was in BSL, but there was some spoken dialogue. This was mostly done by Puck acting as a translator for some of Oberon’s really long speeches, which were the only ones I really couldn’t follow. There was one other character that spoke, but I will talk about him further down. There were also electronic boards that provided summaries of what was happening, so you never got too lost. The play felt shorter than I expected, with it reaching just about 2 ½ hours, including the intermission.

As far as the acting goes, the play was a little overacted, but that had more to do with BSL than the actors. To my understanding of sign languages, the whole body and the exaggeration of the face help convey the meaning. In a normal BSL conversation you can see this sort of overacting, so I expected to see the same exaggerations on stage. The exaggerations may take a little to get used to if you haven’t seen it before. Although the exaggerations worked very well for the actor who played Nick Bottom, as he is supposed to be over the top, and he did that excellently. Whenever Bottom was on stage, the audience was laughing. Although it felt weird when he transformed into the donkey, as his mask covered his face and they put hooves on his hands, so he was no longer able to communicate.

There were some great moments where the play incorporated humor regarding the fact that they were signing, and some of them were hearing impaired. My favorite part was that the director of the Pyramus and Thisbe play didn’t really speak BSL; instead he loudly shouted his directions and used very basic signs. When the other “players” didn’t understand, Bottom translates for them. There was also a great moment where the lion in the Pyramus and Thisbe play had to tap Thisbe in order to scare “her” as she couldn’t hear the roar. The Wall (again in the Pyramus and Thisbe play) in most plays has the characters talk between two of the Wall’s fingers; however, this wouldn’t work with signing. Instead, they created a hole in the wall, and Pyramus and Thisbe took turns ducking into the hole to sign, and causing the player of the Wall to spin with them. It was hilarious.

The costumes for the play were all inspired by business dress. The Duke and the Athenias were all in business and modern clothing. The fairies, however, had elements of business attire in their outfits, but the business elements were mixed in with flowers and other natural elements. This worked out very well and was a neat tie in. Puck’s outfit especially was great with the shirt made from many ties, but sprouting fake flowers all over.

Final Verdict: A unique experience that is great for those open minded people, regardless of whether you can understand British Sign Language or not!

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