Tue 18 Jun

Romeo and Juliet: a note from Jenny Sealey

Learn about Jenny Sealey's past productions of Romeo and Juliet and her plans for her next production coming to Theatre by the Lake this October, 2024.

I have directed Romeo and Juliet twice, once in Tokyo, Japan at Saitama Arts Theatre with an inclusive cast of 8 deaf, disabled and non-disabled people and once in Bangladesh at National Theatre Dhaka with a cast of 13 deaf and disabled actors and 8 blind musicians.

Although artistically, aesthetically, and culturally very different, they both were bilingual in spoken and signed language and the text was captioned. Audio description was foregrounded at start and then embedded within the production.

I am excited to tackle the play again with a cast of deaf, disabled, and neurodivergent performers. We have had two days of R&D exploring our framework and way into the play.

The framework is to allow audio description and contemporary text to sit alongside Shakespeare text.

As with anything, there are a million different artistic ways to do this. Also, when faced with the boundless creativity and generosity of the cast, many more ways in to the text become exciting and possible. One thing we all agreed on is that, our diverse cast has every right to take on the narrative which is usually reserved for a non-disabled cast and a desire to make the play relevant, accessible, and for audiences not to become stultified by Shakespearean text.

We have had two days BSL translation so far. It has taken two days to do 12 pages which demonstrates the intensity of the endeavour. The process has been led by Ben Spiller who is Artistic Director of 1623 Shakespeare company. Ben is clever and wise on all things Shakespeare and they along with Daryl Jackson who is a deaf BSL linguistic consultant have unpacked the language. Then for me, the joy is finding the right signs and flow of signs that capture the absolute essences of the text and is firmly rooted in BSL. The visual and physical representation is not only for deaf audiences, but also for those who get more information visually than from listening.

The overall style of the production is a DIY concept.

The cast use what is there and everything, including their regular daywear, becomes something else as we enter the realms of the story. The creative captions and AV, music and lighting will be a crucial layer of artistic access.

The Bangladesh production was the first time ever that disabled people had been on stage and in the audience at National Theatre of Dhaka. When I first arrived to do a rehearsal at the theatre, it was not accessible, but the very next day a wall was knocked down to build a ramp and the toilets were widened. It was an extraordinary experience of being ‘the first’ and the stage and theatre was filled with love.

The Toyko production of Romeo and Juliet happened months after their Tsunami and this was carefully referenced within the framework as the audience were still in shock of what had happened in their country. The post-show Q&A was led by a director who had lost family, friends and his theatre building, and was a man totally etched in grief. I was so aware of the devastating ending of the play and how this would impact on his and the audience’s grief.

The director hugged me and said seeing the inclusiveness of the cast, their way of working as an ensemble and the care of the framework reminded him of the power of theatre and the need to feel, even if it is painful. He said it gave him a glimmer of hope, and that when all is lost, to love and be loved is vital to being human.

I want our audiences to be reminded of the need to love, and the need to be loved, and to feel and understand the extreme decisions Romeo and Juliet take.

I want the production to remove the language barrier and for people new to Shakespeare, or who are concerned they won’t ‘get it’, to be able to say Shakespeare is for them.

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