Currently touring with Paapa Essiedu in the RSC’s Hamlet, BSL interpreter Becky Barry is at the heart of the action during the special ‘semi-integrated’ shows. She talks to Nick Clark
When Becky Barry steps on to the stage opposite Paapa Essiedu’s Hamlet, her very presence sends the audience into poetic flights of fancy. “Some say I’m playing Hamlet’s soul, others think I’m his ghost or his shadow,” she says. “The question of who I am is left open to the audience.”
Barry is, in fact, the British Sign Language/English interpreter for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s tour of its acclaimed 2016 production of Hamlet, which arrived at Hackney Empire last week. It is a role that is integrated into the action and calls on her to act with, as well as interpret for, the company.
At each stop, from Newcastle to Northampton, the RSC has put on what it describes as a “semi-integrated BSL performance” for D/deaf audience members.
Some hearing audience members may have a preconceived idea of interpreters as being isolated from the action, but not Barry. In the production she is at the heart of the action.
She weaves in and out of the actors, in tune with – and responding to – their performances. And they respond to her. “As a dynamic, we play with it every night. We work off each other,” she says.
If there are moments of intense emotion that need signing, Barry reflects that feeling in her performance, but “I don’t need to go full throttle; everyone can see Paapa and I will never be as good as him”.
To interpret dialogue between multiple characters, Barry uses a technique called ‘role shift’. She says: “I use sign style to define who is speaking: there is a shift in body language and direction.”
Being so close to the action means the D/deaf audiences don’t have to play “eye ping pong” to an interpreter on the side of the stage or to subtitles. Logistically, though, in her performance she cannot regularly turn her head in profile because she has to look at the BSL audience to interpret. “I know where they are sat, so I know where to look.”
Just as each take on Hamlet is different, the BSL interpretation has to reflect that. “If I’m brought in to provide access, my belief is it must be of this production, of this space and time. I am doing Paapa’s Hamlet. David Tennant was great, but it was a different production. I can’t do David’s version.”
Barry, who works freelance, takes an average of 160 hours’ preparation to interpret a Shakespeare production. “I have a process, which is mine, other interpreters have their own and each is valid,” she says.
First she breaks down the script with heavy annotation – “I look at the intrinsic meaning of everything” – she then discusses the production with the creative team, watches it live and studies a recorded copy “for hours”. Barry is a hearing woman from a hearing family so she always works with a D/deaf colleague before locking down the final interpretation.
Then she learns the BSL part and huge chunks of the play; she estimates she can recite about 60% of Hamlet. The way BSL works, there is a different structure to spoken English, so she cannot improvise her interpretations. “I can’t do this off the cuff. If I tried to, it wouldn’t be respectful to the audience.”
This production is contemporary so she tends to stay away from archaic signs to emulate Shakespearean language, but her sign style noticeably changes whether she’s interpreting a beautiful verse monologue or the rhythm of sharp dialogue.
Barry – who is an actor and musician – became involved with the RSC in 2014 when she was BSL/English interpreter for filmed plays as part of its Schools’ Broadcast project.
It led to her appearing in semi-integrated performances at its Swan theatre for The Jew of Malta in 2015 and Julius Caesar on the main stage last year.
Barry grew up in Cornwall with dreams of acting –“I wanted to be the next Emma Thompson”. At 19, she worked at a local college as a learning support assistant to save money ahead of applying to drama school.
There she met a group of D/deaf people. “They and their language got me and I got it. They were a brilliantly generous, effervescent group of people and that rubbed off.”
It prompted her to learn BSL and she continued working at the college as well as going through youth theatre in Plymouth. She mixed drama with BSL when she was introduced to Half Moon Theatre, which was producing bilingual English and BSL shows, when it toured to the port city. She moved to London to continue working on bilingual theatre.
Barry qualified as a BSL/English interpreter in 2011. All this time she was working with theatre companies as an actor and musician. “I was doing these jobs in parallel but in recent years they have really crossed over.” She hails the influence of Deaf linguists and creatives including Jean St Clair, Daryl Jackson and Deepa Shastri.
Barry has worked with Ramps on the Moon in its productions of Tommy and The Government Inspector as well as two years on a fully BSL-integrated pantomime in Doncaster, an area with a big D/deaf community.
As a hearing woman, Barry says she does not have the right to speak out on behalf of her D/deaf colleagues, “but I do have the responsibility to push for more access as a member of this industry. We have to shout about this”.
Her drive for greater access is clear. Barry references Jenny Sealey, chief executive and artistic director of Graeae, who has talked about the “aesthetics of access” and how it is everyone’s responsibility. “I believe that with all my heart,” says Barry.
There is a positive shift towards more access in the industry she believes, and hails the impact of companies including Graeae – which she calls the “giants” of integrating BSL into theatre since the 1980s – and Ramps. She points to talent including D/deaf actor Nadia Nadarajah, as well as Sophie Stone, the co-founder of Deaf and Hearing Ensemble theatre company, the Fingersmiths theatre company, Deafinitely and Birds of Paradise.
“There’s so much work out there and I would encourage people to see it,” Barry says. “It’s okay to not know, but it’s not okay to keep not knowing.” For those wanting to find out more, she points to resources including Arts Council Wales’ Developing Deaf Audiences guidance, as well as information provided by Graeae, Shape Arts and Unlimited.
With her interpretations, Barry believes she can give D/deaf audiences something special, what she terms the “DVD extras” during a performance. For Hamlet, she does not just translate the words but “I give them a direct line to Paapa’s thoughts. For me it adds to the richness”.
After performing for upwards of three hours, and responding to the actors on stage, she is regularly asked the same question. “This show is really intense and people often ask me if my hands are tired after,” she says. “I say: ‘No, but my brain is.’ It feels like it will fall out of my ear.”
Hamlet is on tour and is at the Hackney Empire until March 31, before travelling to the US