We discuss Shakespeare in British Sign Language (BSL), deaf actors, Celia, Titania, Guildenstern, and Cleopatra. Check out http://www.womenandshakespeare.com for a complete transcript.
Interviewer & Producer: Dr Varsha Panjwani
Guest: Ms Nadia Nadarajah
Interpreter: Ms Linda Bruce
Artwork: Mr Wenqi Wan
Suggested Citation: Nadarajah, Nadia in conversation with Panjwani, Varsha (2021). Nadia Nadarajah on Shakespeare in Sign Language (BSL), Celia, Titania, Guildenstern, Cleopatra [Podcast], Series 2, Ep. 3. http://womenandshakespeare.com/
Sponsored by NYU Global Faculty Fund Award
Hello listeners, old and new. Welcome to Women and Shakespeare. I'm your host, Dr. Varsha Panjwani, and I want to know how you like your Shakespeare. Is it on screen, on stage, on the page, in modern dress, or in Elizabethan costume? I like my Shakespeare in different languages, because Shakespeare in English is quoted so much that sometimes Shakespeare in another language touches a nerve that had become immune to overfamiliar words. Sometimes I think Shakespeare gains in translation by acquiring a whole new vocabulary to express. Sometimes the resonance between Shakespeare's and the translator's words tease out new meanings from the plays. It's quite obvious that I'm a fan of polylingual Shakespeare. However, as I went to watch, As You Like It, at Shakespeare's Globe in 2019, I had no idea that I would be blown away by witnessing Shakespeare in Sign Language.
A lot of it of course, was due to the skill of the performer who was signing Shakespeare, so imagine my joy when this actress agreed to appear on the podcast. Our guest for this episode is Nadia Nadarajah, who has made critics rethink the many Shakespeare roles she has played, from the Princess of France in Love's Labour's Lost to Guildenstern in Hamlet, and from Celia in As You Like It to Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream. She has really led the way in establishing British Sign Language as one of the languages of Shakespeare performance in the UK.
Before I invite you to our chat, I'd like to express my deepest gratitude to the absolutely wonderful Linda Bruce who interpreted our conversation.
Welcome Nadia. I am thrilled that you are part of this podcast. I have to say, since we saw you perform, my students and I have been raving about you, so it is such a great honor to host you.
No, thank you for inviting me. That's great. And that's really nice to be part of this podcast.
Could I just begin by asking, when was your first encounter in Shakespeare, and what was the nature of that encounter?
Well, you need to understand that where I've come from, being a deaf person, we weren't allowed to use Sign Language when we were younger. At that time, as I grew up, I stayed in a residential school, which was for deaf children, which we weren't allowed to sign, so we were educated through lip reading and I couldn't hear anything, so I couldn't hear any spoken language. I had to lip read my teachers. Then this is the time where the teacher introduced us to Shakespeare, and they were more focused on how you should speak and how the language was spoken rather than acting, so I hated it. I hated it so much. The language was old English and who the hell is Shakespeare? I didn't want to have anything to do with it. I hated it at that time. I think that was down to the teaching, and I thought, what is the point? What relevance is it to our lives?
Interestingly in 2012, that was the first time that I experienced Shakespeare, and that took me 30 years to have the opportunity, so I had Sign Language then, and then I fell in love. Once it was translated into Sign Language, I forgot all about school, and I was really annoyed that we could have done better than that. We could have been taught that way, 30 years ago and that it was a missed opportunity.
Coming from my background as well, when people say to me, "Oh, we connected with Shakespeare straight away," and I think I didn't, because sometimes the way it's taught, it feels like it doesn't belong to us. I'm actually chiming with you on this, but you have performed on Shakespeare's Globe stage several times. What are the opportunities and unique challenges?
Let me recall. I remember my first visit to the Globe, not as a performance, but actually watching a play, and it was Hamlet. It was a spoken play and it was Maori, so the people were from New Zealand, and that was interesting for me. There was no subtitles or captions. I think there was 12 of us, and we were all deaf, and we got some tickets and we're all sort of looking at each other, thinking, "Do you know what's going on?" We're like, "No, I haven't got a clue," so we just thought, right, we'd focus on the stage. And watching it, it was beautiful. You could see the play, and it was linking to our humanity, the language links to humans. It didn't matter where the language came from. It didn't matter which country it was. It didn't matter what culture it was.
It's looking at the human language and then we understood it, and that's what Shakespeare wrote about. He wrote about the human, and the personalities, and the relationships, so I got it then. When the opportunity came for me to go onto the stage and they gave me a play, I was like, "Wow." I was so excited. I wanted to share my language, my culture, my identity, my personality, everything from when I'd grown up until now, and that Shakespeare and I could put that on the stage, and show everybody else. That's the big opportunity. That's the big opportunity.
The challenge is the space. If you think about the Globe, it's curved. It's a bit like, if you could think about my language, it's visual, it isn't linked to sounds, so if you look at the stage, you think about sound, and listening, and hearing things, but you have to look through your eyes to watch me. You've got the pillars as well, inside the Globe, and it's hard for everybody in the audience to see me, and think about... They always think about characters and the lines, but I'm thinking about how people can actually see me on the stage, because they won't be able to hear me.
Absolutely. I mean, thrilling space, but boy does it present challenges! Let's talk about 2012 then. You performed as part of a company called Deafinitely Theatre, which presented Love's Labour's Lost in British Sign Language or BSL. Just to make it clear to our listeners, this production was not BSL interpreted, but it was performed in BSL, and 37 Shakespeare plays were being performed in 37 different languages, so do you think this was the right setting for the company, because then it presented BSL as just one of the different languages?
Yes. It definitely is. It was in the right place. It was the right area for it, because it's linked to languages. Deaf Sign Language is linked to language, so talking about BSL, British Sign Language is another language. It's not English. It's another language. It's another language in the same country as spoken English, but we also have Welsh in the UK and we also have Celtic language. As BSL and other languages, they have their own structure, their own syntax. I think people assume that spoken English and Sign Language has the same English structure. It's not. I can, perhaps, read English, but I have to translate it and process it, and what it would mean and make it make sense in Sign Language. The Globe is the perfect place for that, and it recognizes our language. They don't see us as a disability. They don't need to have an interpreter there to make it accessible for other deaf people, so it's got nothing to do with access. It meant it was accessible for everybody.
I totally agree with that, because I think if more people just see it as another language, then they would also think that, "Okay, maybe we should learn that language," right? Rather than, "Oh, it's not just for people who are deaf." It's like any other language. If you learn it, you can communicate in it.
Yes, exactly. You're absolutely right.
You were talking about translating English into BSL. Obviously, I'm assuming that Shakespeare has to be translated into BSL afresh, so what is your approach to translating Shakespeare?
Well, if you look at the language, Shakespeare writes it in a similar style how deaf people produce Sign Language, and deaf people actually speak the way that Shakespeare wrote. Now, we don't speak like how he wrote, do we? So this is how sometimes I can get it, because I'm able to understand it sometimes more than other people, because I can get the meaning of what's going on, because that's how we tend to produce our language. He talks about things, about the heart bleeding. Well, we talk like that. We show it visually, but that's how we represent it.
When we focused on initially, for say, two weeks, there was 10 deaf actors who sat around in a circle. "What was the meaning of that? How do we understand that?" Then we'd have somebody that would understand the translation, and then they would explain what it meant, and we were like, "Oh, we can do it like this." We were like, "Of course." There's one language, which is translated into another language, and then we have many options that we can pick. It isn't a transliteration, we have options, so we look for meaning, understanding where's he coming from? Then we decide, or which option should we choose? That's how we would translate it into Sign Language.
There isn't always a perfect way of doing it either. It changes through the rehearsals. It could be at the fifth week that we decide that we've got it, or maybe in the middle of the actual play.
I'm interested in Bollywood Shakespeare, so I look at translation a lot, and what you're describing is similar, because sometimes I tell my students, "Look, what is here in Hindi is actually closer to Shakespeare than perhaps modern English," so I totally get that.
Yes, I know.
Let's talk about Love's Labour's Lost, and that's a play that is not performed very often, which is a shame, because I love the Princess of France, which you performed. She is political, savvy, has this entourage of smart women around her. What was your take on the Princess of France?
I agree with what you've just said. The Princess of France, she is a beautiful character, and she has some... Well, she didn't actually have enough lines, I think in the play. She's a strong character. She's a strong woman and funny, and there are not enough lines. You can see it in her presence. The fact, on the stage, how she behaves, how she holds other people and responds to them, when she's listening to them and describing them. You start to understand more about her. Mm-hmm (affirmative). She's a wonderful character, really.
You think about the woman arriving into another country, to go and meet another man in his place, his country. Can you imagine? Had to go and speak to a king, another king, be powerful enough to talk to him, approach him in his country, and that's interesting in itself, how assertive she was.
I just wish that this play was taught in schools more, so that our young women would have this introduction to Shakespeare's characters.
Oh, I agree. I agree.
Talking about another play in which you played queen, A Midsummer Night's Dream. You returned to Shakespeare's Globe to play Titania, and there's something that really bothers me about this play. It is unsettling for me that the queen of fairies, Titania, is manipulated into intimacy with an ass headed Bottom, by Oberon. Did that bother you?
You are right. Thinking at that time when I played it, it was in 2014, it didn't bother me. Well, let me talk about Titania. Our relationship was odd. It could have been an open relationship or they could have fell in love, but it depended on how much, how could you measure that love? Don't forget he had lots of other women as well, so maybe today looking at 2020, we might talk about it more. Maybe we can link it to the #MeToo, thinking about that, the spell that's put on us, that we don't have consent at times. Maybe we should focus more on that part, literally just on that part itself, and stretch it, and see what more we can get from it.
Yeah. I love your idea of just exploring that relationship more. Clearly, you're right. We can't look at it in terms of monogamous human relationships. There are other women involved, there are children involved, and there is a general lack of consent, I feel, in the whole play, so I think it would be really quite something to just focus on that relationship, and see what's going on in there, and what problems, or maybe what ideas of liberation can it raise?
Yes, exactly. Maybe the possibility of creating a film and just explore it more.
I really now want to see a film of the kind that you were describing.
That'd be good.
I also want to talk to you about another role that you played, Celia in As You Like It, and that was the production my students, we saw and fell in love with.
The first time I did it, in 2018, and then it was done again in 2019. When you asked about the translation, we translated it in 2018, and yes, we got it across as we could, but when you saw it in 2019, it was just on another level. It was more present. We'd have more time to develop it, and people were thinking it was the same as last year. It had developed through to 2019, so you saw another, a different version of it.
My students and I saw it, and we had so many questions, but of the good kind. We couldn't stop talking about it in our seminars. But one thing that I did want to ask you about Celia, is that she's often so overshadowed by her cousin, Rosalind, in the play, because Rosalind has so many lines, but Celia is present in so many scenes. I become fascinated by these characters, such as Gertrude in Hamlet, who might not have that many lines, but they are present in so many scenes. I have a two-part question, really. One, does this mean that an actor has more input into these characters? They can really make it their own, and secondly, what do you think about Celia?
Okay. The first question. I want you to think about my background as a deaf person and my community. It's very common, what happens. I am like Celia. You know how, that she was walking around with Rosalind and Rosalind would be doing all the talking. That would be me with other people that could hear. We'd be alongside. We wouldn't be saying anything. We'd be mixing around with many people that could hear and there'd only be one deaf person in that community, if you like. Then somebody would be taking me along to somewhere and they would say, "Oh, she's only deaf. She won't understand what we're saying," so they could chat openly, and I'd just observe people. I might not understand everything that somebody was saying, but I was always there observing, watching. Some people would say that us deaf people can see how people are behaving through their body language.
Now, you look at Rosalind in the play, she loved Orlando, didn't she? But she didn't realize initially, but she was flirting with him. Her eyes are fluttering. She was giggling. Now, Celia could see that, she could see it. She couldn't hear what was being said, but she was watching their body language, and she thought, "Oi," and this is what deaf people are like, they're always waving their arms, and we're told to hold on and wait, so she was a representation of me in some way, and it worked. She's deaf, but it's interesting when you look at Celia, she only has a few lines, but it says a lot her being there, so I was thinking, "What does it mean?" If Celia could hear, would she be listening, or would she ignore what was going on? How would she behave? But it's, for me, it's common, that I can just observe what's going on. I might misunderstand lots of things, but I might get something. I thought it was relevant for her to be deaf.
Really made sense of it as well, the character. I think my students were so captivated by this, because I think, for the first time, they took an interest in Celia, which often in productions, they only want to talk about Rosalind and Orlando.
I wonder. Going back in the day, when he wrote it, had he met a deaf person, had he used that person as a character, but there's obviously not enough research into her, and I was using my own character of Celia that they wanted more of her. Who was she? Why isn't there enough lines? Why is she always with Rosalind? We were always curious about what her role was there.
It's a fascinating research subject that you've opened up. I think that there is not enough historical... I mean, people are researching this, but there isn't enough historicizing of the kind of actors that Shakespeare was using. As you say, was there a deaf actor on stage, or was he just basing this character on somebody that they'd seen? I think that this is a wonderful research area, so students take note.
Yes. Give them a nudge.
Let's talk about yet another character that you played. Guildenstern in Hamlet. Now, usually Rosencrantz and Guildenstern just fuse into one in many productions, and actually their betrayal of Hamlet and vice versa, doesn't even register so strongly, but in this version where you had a beard and all, if I remember correctly-
... in this version, I really felt that they were college friends and they were devastated that the bonds between them were broken.
Well, Guildenstern was a fascinating character. When Shakespeare wrote both of those characters, they were like best friends. You can see it now in everyday life. There's always a couple of people, they were together as best friends. They couldn't merge into one, and I don't understand why that happens. Don't forget, they met at college didn't they, and thinking about a deaf person achieving things in university, he wouldn't have been able to carry on in college without a friend. He wouldn't have been able to succeed. Then Hamlet was able to understand Sign Language because they spent so much time together in college, so they had that relationship together. I think it's really sad that it was broken up, and that was because his stepfather had broken their relationship, if you like. I think it's happened to us now at the moment, our relationships are all breaking up at the moment with this difficult time we're at. I think that story that Shakespeare wrote, with the three men together had a really close bond that was broken by Hamlet's stepfather, and it really damaged them.
It's interesting that you ask us to reflect on their university life, and how bonds are made at university, what happens when real world circumstances intervene in that relationship.
Yes, absolutely. This is why we brought that into the character. They are friends in university, and our friends that we made in university are exactly the same, they're good friends, and that's what we brought into the play. A lot of young people feel a relation to that when watching the play, when they see us together, when we come, the three of us come back on the stage, and you can feel that reaction from the audience and like, "Oh, they're back, and... they've got something." They can see the essence of their friendship on stage.
Absolutely. I want to say this, that I was so looking forward to seeing you as Cleopatra, in Antony and Cleopatra at Shakespeare's Globe. When the casting was announced, I told my university, this is one production we're definitely going to see, but then lockdown happened.
Now, there have been two Cleopatras on this podcast, Donna Croll and Janet Suzman and they both had slightly different interpretations. Croll was interested in the way that Cleopatra is a really smooth politician, whereas Suzman was describing how much she pushes and teases Antony, and I know things will change when you rehearse, but what is your impression of Shakespeare's dazzling queen at this moment?
Luckily, before lockdown happened, I was able to look at the script and do some translation of it. We've been able to, all of us, read through the script. The first reaction is, from me as Nadia, I feel it is the parallel. Me and Cleopatra are living a parallel life, knowing the standards of the politics of women of color. Don't forget, there's a lot of reference to color in the script. She's not similar to anybody in Europe. You can think about this woman, this powerful woman going to this country, would she be treated the same or would she be seen differently?
I felt that I, in my everyday life, I am a woman of color. I'm deaf, I'm different to other people in society at the moment, so I have to be assertive and make sure that I have some equality, some standard with other people. I have the power to show that in my character, and I can bring that into Cleopatra. That's what we need to show when we get to do the play.
I hope so, because I definitely think that it's written in the play. Shakespeare writes it inside the play, that people, whether good or bad, they say, "Oh, she's so exotic. She's so different," but then all the negative stereotypes as well. "She's a gypsy, she wastes time," and those kind of opposite reactions you would never have if you were not seeing somebody as the 'Other'.
Yes, yes. Yeah. Yeah. That is, that is that. It's judging without approaching, it's judging and looking them up and down, not accepting that they have... I mean, she was a queen, wasn't she? You don't expect me either to achieve. Some people will look at me, probably thinking, not expecting me to have a lead role on stage. Other people look at me and go, "You're on the stage?" You think of people who perhaps are the right wing views, they're like, "You're on the stage, you play Guildenstern? You've played two characters, you played Celia, and you introduced Sign Language in there?" I was like, "Yeah, it was perfect," and I can do exactly the same with Cleopatra. Nobody could stop her, and I feel, I have some parallel with her. I had some bad reviews that criticized me. How could I be on stage? But I'm still here, so nobody's stopping me.
Absolutely not. Fantastic. Nadia, I have enjoyed this conversation, and it's made me rethink so many things about gaps in our research, and also, about how these characters live on and live on, on stage. Here's to unstoppable you, and I am waiting to see you as Cleopatra.
Yes. Thank you so much for inviting me to join you today and have this discussion. It's been great.
That was Nadia Nadarajah, talking about Sign Language, deaf actors, Titania, Celia, Guildenstern, and Cleopatra.
Next month, we will be welcoming the legendary Adjoa Andoh, whose all women of color production of Richard II is the kind of tour de force that Shakespeare needs in this cultural moment.
Dear listeners, adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember to tune in to 'Women & Shakespeare' streaming at Apple Podcasts and Spotify. If you want to listen to the podcast with full transcripts, head over to our website, www.womenandshakespeare.com. Until then keep smashing the patriarchy!