Breaking the silence

As a groundbreaking production of Macbeth begins, there will be no more waiting in the wings for Charlotte Arrowsmith and Adam Bassett

Hero image

Can Shakespeare plays be performed straight? Doubtless there’s a Reddit thread that argues the toss, but many would agree that when it comes to the Bard, revamping the play’s the thing.

The late 20th century spawned musical overhauls (West Side Story), modern adaptations (Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet) and dramatic high school retellings (10 Things I Hate About You) on both stage and screen. It was also a less enlightened time, with Adam’s-appled Titanias taking the stage long after Shakespeare’s death, and blacked-up Othellos a thing as late as the 1960s.

The 21st century is all about inclusivity. Female actor Cush Jumbo’s portrayal of Hamlet at the Young Vic last year was critically lauded as “remarkable” and just this month, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) cast limb-different actor Arthur Hughes as Richard III.

This spring, Leeds Playhouse has found a new perspective from which to tell Shakespeare’s tearing psychological tragedy Macbeth, and for actors Charlotte Arrowsmith, 42, from Scarborough and Adam Bassett, 40, from Hull, it’s about bloody time. Both deaf from birth, Arrowsmith and Bassett have a combined 35 years of theatre experience under their doublets.

“Shakespeare writes like a deaf person thinks,” says Arrowsmith, who plays Lady Macduff and one of the Three Witches. “When you translate Shakespeare into modern-day English, it doesn’t quite fit, but when you then put it into British Sign Language (BSL), it makes a lot of sense.”

“To my knowledge, no rendition of Macbeth has ever featured deaf people before,” says Bassett, who plays Macduff. “It feels really natural, really right.”

Director Amy Leach is a passionate champion of creatively accessible theatre, and her Macbeth is for everyone. Interpreters are an integral part of the team, and Bassett and Arrowsmith use BSL and visual vernacular (VV) – a kind of poetry performed with the body – throughout. Associate director Ben Wilson, who is blind, has brilliantly weaved audio description into the story, and visually impaired actor Karina Jones, who plays one of the Witches, narrates key passages in character.

Bassett, who is also a director, worked with Leach on Leeds Playhouse’s production of Oliver Twist last year.

“I learn so much working with Amy,” he says. “I trust and admire her. She pays attention to deaf people’s views – I love it.”

“It’s really amazing that Leeds Playhouse is doing what it’s doing,” echoes Arrowsmith. “Just – wow. When I got here, I realised everybody in the room was equal. There’s no separation or feeling different, there’s access for everybody. It blows my mind.”

Last year, deaf actor Rose Ayling-Ellis danced her way into the nation’s hearts with her appearance on BBC One’s Strictly Come Dancing, promoting inclusivity in the arts in the process and putting the BSL community on the map.

“[The judges] would all sign ‘thank you’ and I was like: ‘Whoa, that’s my language on primetime TV!’” enthuses Bassett. “And she won! The whole world could see that deaf people can do anything hearing people can do.”

“Well done to Rose. She’s a great role model for young deaf people and it’s great exposure,” says Arrowsmith. “But I just feel like it’s come 50 years too late. Rose is not me, Rose is not Adam – we don’t want deaf people on TV to be a one-off. It’s not enough. We need to be seen in the mainstream on a regular basis. I get frustrated and angry – what’s the hold-up? I’m tired of waiting – I want more and I want it now.”

Arrowsmith became interested in the performing arts around age six, but sidestepped theatre to train to be a sports coach, going on to play basketball in the Rome 2000 Deaflympics.

“My dad, who’s hearing and a social worker for the deaf, always encouraged me to go to drama clubs but I felt like I wouldn’t fit in. When I heard about a course [theatre, arts, education and deaf studies] at Reading University when I was 18, I was impressed. The desire [to act] had always been there but I’d had to think of other things to do because I didn’t think it was a possibility for me. I got my first paid acting job straight out of uni and later became the first person ever to use BSL in an RSC production [Troilus and Cressida, 2018]. Top that!”

Bassett met Arrowsmith at Doncaster College for the deaf, where he also studied sport.

“It wasn’t what I wanted to do but I had to choose something – courses suitable for deaf people were few and far between. I’d perform bits off films for my friends and they’d say ‘You should be an actor!’ But when a teacher told me ‘You’ll never be an actor, that’s too hard for you,’ I believed them. So I put the dream aside.”

In 1880, a ban on the use of sign language in schools was put in place across Europe and America. This shamefully discriminatory decision perpetuated ignorance, and suppressed deaf people and their rights to access the same opportunities as hearing people. The first renunciation of the ban came a shocking 100 years later, and even after it was lifted, attitudes didn’t change overnight. Doctors told Bassett’s parents not to teach him sign language, and Arrowsmith was forced to speak at school, getting her hands smacked if she tried to sign.

“I can use my voice if it’s a matter of survival but it’s not my first language,” she says. “I used to have to be sly with my own language and I could never understand why. That’s not what you want as a child.

“I’m acutely aware that deaf people may have difficult things they need to talk about, and they need the language to be able to express those things. They need to be able to talk about what their passions are and things that are happening to them. I am a strong deaf woman, I can articulate how I feel. But what about those who are anxious, those who are vulnerable? We don’t feel disabled – it’s society that disables us. Who says we can’t do things? Often, it’s hearing people. We’ve been put down.”

“It feels like dogs have more rights than deaf people,” agrees Bassett.

When he was 26, Bassett’s sister passed away. He had a breakdown and became homeless.

“I was sleeping rough and staying in hostels. I couldn’t really communicate with my family… Then I found a place at Hull College doing media studies and they were really happy to have someone deaf on their course. I was quite shocked. I learnt lots, ended up with a place to live and eventually I thought, you know what, I can be an actor.”

His theatre debut was in Love’s Labour’s Lost, performed entirely in BSL at Shakespeare’s Globe as part of deaf-led company Deafinitely Theatre. “Charly [Arrowsmith] was in it too. It’s so strange and lovely how we keep coming back together, usually to do Shakespeare!” he laughs.

Bassett’s development of Macduff, Shakespeare’s three-dimensional hero, has been a taxing but satisfying exploration. “It’s a triple translation – Shakespearean English into modern-day English into BSL into VV. The rest of the cast is hearing, so working out how to communicate with them on stage has been difficult but really interesting – and then there’s the sword fights!”

The contrast between Arrowsmith’s characters gives her space to play, she says.

“There are moments when I’ve chosen to use my voice. Lady Macduff, this strong matriarch, solely using my own language [BSL] gives me strength in that role. As a mischievous Witch, I give it a bit of attitude, a bit of a tomboy feel and get stuck in.”

If anything was made to be shaken up, twisted and turned on its head, it’s Shakespeare. There’s no such thing as a purist rendition and it wasn’t the playwright’s intention.

“Shakespeare doesn’t say Macbeth is fat with white hair and freckles,” says Arrowsmith. “Those characteristics aren’t listed for a reason. Gender, sexuality, race, disability – it doesn’t matter. White people, hearing people, have had the power for too long. I feel like that’s changing now.”

Macbeth is showing at Leeds Playhouse 26 February-19 March

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Breaking the silence

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.