There have been plenty of opportunities to see Much Ado this year, with productions at the RSC, the National and the Globe – but you’re unlikely to see another like this. Ramps on the Moon works with deaf, disabled, neurodivergent and non-disabled performers and creative artists, staging classics that reliably find clever ways to integrate sign language, audio description and subtitling. Directed by Sheffield Theatre’s Artistic Director Robert Hastie, this is their first Shakespeare.
From opening with an avowed Dramatis Personae in which characters drolly introduce themselves and their appearance (Benedick: “Sky-blue suit and dark shirt and a chip on his shoulder”), this production both makes the plot of Shakespeare’s darkest rom-com crystal clear and has plenty of irreverence fun with it. Guy Rhys as Benedick has a fine line in comic asides, while the signing really comes alive to innuendo in the verse. The often boring scenes of Watchmen are transformed: here Dogberry and Verges are a couple of hot-pink-clad wedding planners. Still incompetent, but fabulously so. The three hours pass.
I was less convinced by the unfocused setting: Peter McKintosh’s set is a Chekhovian cabin among birch trees, and the weddings are apparently pagan, all white dresses and wreaths. But elsewhere, guys wear suits with sneakers, and the ball is a Wild West pick. With masks. It is a peculiar mixture.
But there are more profound rewards to be found in this production that integrates creative sign language, audio description and subtitling. In a play that is so much about espionage, characters silently eavesdropping on each other add to the pervasive sense of observation. Claire Wetherall is a moving hero, and her inability to defend herself against false accusations is made more poignant – and simply more concrete – by the fact that she communicates only through sign language.
Daneka Etchells as a supposedly despicable Beatrice and Rhys as an exasperated Benedick may not always have the sizzling chemistry, but they have one of the most touching single moments I’ve seen in any Shakespeare production. Distraught by Hero’s abuse of her fiancé (and most of the other prickly, fickle men), Beatrice demands that Benedick kill Claudio in revenge. In this moment of emotional extremity, Etchells – who is autistic – begins to stimulate: beating her chest and head with compulsive movements. It is Benedick who soothes and comforts her – an act of love all the more tender after being at odds with their usual public displays of tightly controlled verbal sparring.
Until September 24, then on tour; 0114 249 6000, sheffieldtheatres.co.uk