In Prince Hamlet, Sign Language Adds a New Poetry to a Shakespeare Classic

Wednesday 16th, January 2019 / 07:00
By Leah Siegel

A little over 10 years ago, Ravi Jain was trying to establish a theatre company in Toronto. He had just returned from a stint abroad and was still reacquainting himself with Canadian audiences. For his first production, he mounted a perennial favorite: William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. A decade later, he’s coming back to the Danish prince – but not because he’s in need of a crowd-pleaser.

“Part of revisiting an old play like Hamlet is to show that there is more to be found in this play than we know,” Jain says. “It’s a great opportunity to challenge the status quo, and to show us that another world is possible when you change who gets to tell the story.”

In Why Not Theatre’s production of Prince Hamlet, there are a number of changes made, but perhaps the most significant is who now relays the story to the audience: Horatio – Hamlet’s best friend and (spoiler alert!) the play’s sole survivor – played by deaf actress Dawn Jani Birley. For this shift in perspective, Birley and Jain had to translate from scratch Shakespeare’s poetic English into American Sign Language (ASL).

“There are three styles of ASL that are happening throughout the show,” Jain explains, including a more expressive, image-based type of ASL that Birley developed for the production. “The response to that has been amazing, because deaf audiences don’t normally get to experience that same level of poetry. An interpreter is often giving a neutral expression of what is happening, so it’s as if you’re reading the play for yourself. You just read it. There’s no emotion, there’s no context. What Dawn does so incredibly is embody and perform the emotion to communicate the expression of the text. There’s a lot of nuance to what she does that just brings it to life.”

A signing Horatio isn’t just an artistic choice for Jain: it’s also political. “Dawn speaks a lot about deaf people being forgotten, being invisible, and not being given importance in society. In our version, the deaf person has the most important role: the storyteller,” he says. “The story is literally in her hands.”

Prince Hamlet runs from January 23-27 at the Frederic Wood Theatre as part of the PuSh Festival.

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