PuSh Fest's radically inclusive Prince Hamlet recasts Shakespeare in sign language

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      In Canadian theatre, American Sign Language interpretation, when it’s offered, is usually done off to the side during a couple of special performances.

      But in Why Not Theatre’s radically inclusive Prince Hamlet, which is coming here for the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, it takes centre stage. A deaf actor tackles one of the lead roles, and integrates sign language right into the storytelling.

      What’s struck director Ravi Jain, who took on this wild rethinking of Hamlet for his buzz-generating Toronto company’s 10th anniversary, is how much that new physical language has brought to the show.

      “Shakespeare relies so much on the words, and here there’s a story you hear and then a story you see,” he relates, talking to the Straight from the Banff Centre, before hitting the West Coast. “What’s beautiful is we’re both seeing and hearing the text, and I find I’m understanding it better. It’s so interesting to see what can be communicated with voice and what can be communicated with sign.”

      The project began with Jain’s own desire to revisit Hamlet, while challenging traditional casting with actor Christine Horne in the lead and several other women taking traditionally male parts. Jain, who has made a name for diverse casting in shows like the Canadian classic Salt-Water Moon, also adds people from an array of racial backgrounds in the roles. As he puts it, “I wanted to challenge the perspective of who tells the story.”

      A conference in Minnesota that called on theatre directors to consider casting people with disabilities spurred Jain to then go beyond gender and race. And after meeting deaf activist and actor Dawn Jani Birley when he returned to Toronto, he knew he had found his Horatio—a role his reconstruction of Shakespeare’s tragedy turns into a central narrator, as important to the story as the titular prince.

      “I stumbled into it—and I have been so lucky to stumble into that with Dawn, who is so involved in and ferocious about deaf rights,” Jain says. “We agreed at the start that what we have in common is that we both have a passion for equity.”

      Director Ravi Jain challenges traditional casting with his vision for Prince Hamlet.
      Bronwen Sharp

      Canadian-born Birley now lives in Finland, where progressive policies for the deaf included funding her for two interpreters—not only for the creation process with Jain, but on the road. It’s allowed Jain to integrate sign language organically; Birley’s expressive movement becomes a kind of physical poetry that adds an extra, fascinating layer of storytelling to the action. It hasn’t been without its challenges: Birley herself has had to find a new, heightened way of translating Shakespearean English. There have been practical concerns as well, Jain says. “In order for Dawn to sign, all the actors are constantly giving cues to let her know where she is in the script,” he explains, “so the actors’ attention is heightened even more than usual.”

      The collaboration, staged with striking tall mirrors and real dirt, has opened a new world of possibility for Jain. He’s already working on another Shakespearean project with Birley: as director of the Citadel/Banff Centre Professional Theatre Program, he’s overseeing a reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, directed by Josette Bushell-Mingo of Sweden’s national deaf theatre, Tyst Teater.

      He’s found the work fits perfectly with what he’s doing at Why Not and elsewhere. At the same time, he discovers himself on the vanguard of a movement to integrate more signing into Canadian theatre.

      “I’ve been about language, communication, and culture,” he says, “and the more you get into this, it’s really about culture.”

      The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival presents Prince Hamlet at the Frederic Wood Theatre from next Wednesday to Sunday (January 23 to 27).