How Deaf storytelling breathed new life into Hamlet’s story

Why the PuSh Festival’s Prince Hamlet is the only Hamlet that matters to me anymore

Image courtesy of Brownen Sharp for Why Not Theatre

By: Gabrielle McLaren, Features Editor


Time to break the fourth wall and preface this by admitting that I am still absolutely, completely destroyed by the production I just witnessed. PuSh Festival really did a number on me by hosting Why Not Theatre’s Prince Hamlet, a bilingual production of Shakespeare’s magnum opus that integrates English and American Sign Language (ASL) from start to finish.


Overall, it’s the Hamlet you know and love with a killer set and some gender-bent casting (you might not think that a man playing Ophelia could work, but that’s because you haven’t had your heart broken by Jeff Ho’s earnest and genuine performance yet). But where a Greek tragedy might have a chorus, this Danish disaster features Horatio (Dawn Jani Birley) as the main storyteller from the prologue onwards.


Horatio also happens to be Hamlet’s Deaf friend, hence why some characters alternate between English and American Sign Language (he and Hamlet frequently code-switch). When Horatio is off-scene, Birley is still present as the narrator, interpreting for the audience.


Birley’s work looked exhausting: her energy was sky-high, her focus was sharp as Laertes’ foil, and her characterizations for each character was unique and beautiful. My ASL is only at a beginner’s level, but my attention was torn between Birley and Christine Horne (Hamlet herself!) during the soliloquies. And that’s while keeping in mind how hilariously witty and engaged (and sassy) Horne herself was. A personal favourite moment was when Horatio gave up on translating Polonius’ speech after realising just how full of shit he was, and instead made fun of him.


I should also mention the dirt — piles of it, which surrounded the set in varying locations. These piles of dirt were stood on, kicked around by a possibly-delirious Hamlet, fucked on (looking at you, Claudius), prayed on (still you, Claudius), shaped into graves, and thrown across the stage during Ophelia’s flower speech. It was finally used by the Gravedigger to mark the spots where Gertrude, Hamlet, Claudius, and Laertes sat during Act V.


That’s right: the final duel had no swords. Horatio took over the narrative and used some incredibly poignant ASL storytelling techniques to recount the final duel, during which the Hearing actors interjected with their lines. They fell over one by one, leaving a devastated Horatio to sob through his iconic “goodnight, sweet prince” line and close the show. For the record, I also sobbed.  


I happen to be a World Literature student, which means I spend lots of time thinking about translation, and I was baffled at this play. This was an intelligent, purposeful, comprehensive, and believable translation. Never once did I think why are we doing this? We just had to.


Horatio was Deaf, he had a story to tell all of us, and my gosh, I wanted to hear it. Both languages were built into the narrative, and I can’t imagine the amount of work that went into translating Shakespeare’s work and staging the play to keep Horatio and other signing actors visible. Part of me wants to say “this is how you do translation,” but really I think that this is how you do Shakespeare if you want to truly showcase the universality, accessibility, and powerful storytelling of the Bard.