There have been plenty of opportunities to see Much Ado this year, with productions at the RSC, the National and the Globe, but it’s unlikely you’ll see another like this one. Ramps on the Moon works with deaf, disabled, neurodivergent and non-disabled artists and creatives, staging classics that reliably find clever ways to integrate sign language, audio description and subtitles. Directed by Sheffield Theater Artistic Director Robert Hastie, this is their first Shakespeare.
From the start with a declared Dramatis Personae in which the characters playfully present themselves and their appearance (Benedick: “Sky Blue Dress and Dark Shirt and a Splinter on My Shoulder”), this production makes the plot of the romantic comedy darker than Crystal clear Shakespeare and has a lot of irreverent fun with it. Guy Rhys as Benedick has a fine line in the comics aside, while the signature certainly looks vividly alive to insinuate into the verse. Often boring scenes with the Watchmen are transformed: here, Dogberry and Verges are a pair of bright pink wedding planners. Still incompetent, but wonderfully so. The three hours whiz by.
I was less convinced of the blurry setting: Peter McKintosh’s set is a Chekhovian hut amidst birch trees, and the weddings are apparently pagan, all white robes and wreaths of flowers. Elsewhere though, the guys wear suits with sneakers and the ball is a wild West hoedown. With masks. It is a peculiar mixture.
But there are deeper rewards to be found in this production that integrates creative sign language, audio description and subtitles. In a play focused on espionage, the characters silently exchange what they are overhearing adds to the pervasive sense of observation. Claire Wetherall is a touching hero and her inability to defend herself against false accusations is made more touching – and simply more concrete – by communicating her only through sign language.
Daneka Etchells as a dismissive, contemptuous Beatrice and Rhys as an exasperated Benedick may not always have the hottest chemistry, but they do have one of the single most moving moments I’ve ever seen in any Shakespeare production. Saddened by Hero’s abuse by her boyfriend (and most of the other thorny and fickle men), Beatrice asks Benedict to kill Claudio in revenge. In this moment of extreme emotionality, Etchells – who is autistic – begins to stimulate himself: beating his chest and head with compulsive movements. It is Benedick who calms her down and comforts her – an act of love all the more tender for being at odds with their usual public displays of tightly controlled verbal combat.
Until September 24, then on tour; 0114 249 6000, sheffieldtheatres.co.uk