Black people can do the same things as white folk’ Sibu Mpanza, Capetown, June 2015

‘Deaf people can do the same as hearing people’ Dominic Mc Greal, Belfast, September 2015

 

Are you sitting comfortably?

Sit back. Relax. Imagine.

We’re going to make a story – together.

This is Shakespeare, but not as you know it.

Let the images and sounds wash over you.

You are inside – with us.

We’re going to make the story – together:

You, us and Shakespeare.

In this year of Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary Run to the Rock is a mediation on Shakespeare, an exploration, if you like, of his writings and their performance potential for the twenty-first century; Shakespeare Reworked.

THE ROBBEN ISLAND BIBLE

The texts we have chosen are taken from the ‘Robben Island Bible’, a complete works of Shakespeare, covered by postcards of Hindu gods, shared between the prisoners on Robben Island. The book’s owner, South African Sonny Venkatrathnam, was a political prisoner on Robben Island from 1972 to 1978. During his incarceration he asked his wife to send him a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works during a brief period when prisoners were allowed to have one book, other than a religious text, with them.

The book’s ‘fame’ resides in the fact that Venkatrathnam passed the book to a number of his fellow political prisoners in the single cells. Each of them signed and dated a Shakespearean passage from the book that spoke to them at that time, and in that situation, in 1974. Thirty-two inmates, all leaders in the struggle for a democratic South Africa, signed this complete works of Shakespeare. Run to the Rock has chosen six of these text; the choices of Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Joe Gquabi, Eddie Daniels, Ahmed Kathrada and Nelson Mandela.

Their selected texts provide a fascinating insight into the thinking of those political prisoners who fought for the transformation of South Africa and example the resonance of Shakespeare’s work on exploring the human condition, regardless of place or time. These speeches cross a myriad of Shakespeare’s plays and are, if you like, Desert Island Disc choices. We cannot read these selected speeches without remembering the context of their choosing; men imprisoned while fighting against oppression. Themes of disillusionment, of inequality, of trouble and leadership sparkle through the chosen texts. They are potent reflections on the time and situation in which they were chosen.

Shakespeare’s place in the new South Africa and the status of Robben Island Bible are not without complications. The ANC deny any inspiration coming from the texts in the Robben Island bible and indeed, Ahmed Kathrada, one of the signatories, has no memory of choosing any text or of the Bible’s existence. This muddied legacy provides me with fertile grounds on which to explore. Fintan O’Toole, literary editor of the Irish Times describes the potential of contested narratives when he said ‘contested spaces can become imaginative places’. In the case of this production, contested sites of influence for these chosen texts offer rich space for the creative imagination.

To explore these speeches the all female company of Run to the Rock have put the words onto our bodies. We have translated them in Irish Sign Language. We have translated them also into British Sign Language. Sign Language, with its iconic and gestural roots, is a physical form of language; language put on the body. It is creative, expressive and naturally aligns with physical theatre and performance practice. Sign Language is also hotly contested and a divisively oppressed language. Sign is half the company’s native tongue. The community of sign language users – including those living in Northern Ireland and South Africa – is a global one, connected through life experiences of living as a marginalized linguistic minority community. South African Sign language is closely related to Irish Sign Language because the Irish Dominican Order established the first school for the Deaf in South Africa, the Dominican School for the Deaf Children in Capetown, and brought with them Irish Sign Language. Here in Northern Ireland the Deaf community uses both Irish and British Sign Language, paralleling the traditional cultural allegiances we live with.

We have fractured the speeches, repeated them, dislocated them from their original play context and the prison where they were chosen and re-located them here, with us, now. These texts, both written and on the body, channel an exploration of struggle for recognition. This struggle, while filtered in this production through the Anti-Aparthied movement and Deaf Community cultural recognition campaign, is a universal and recognisable experience, lateral to any emblematic ‘otherness’.

The Robben Island Bible became in 1974 when the struggle against apartheid seemed an impossible one. Twenty years later children born in 1994 in South Africa, the year of the first free elections, are called the ‘born free generation’. What a beautiful title. 1994 was an important year for us too.

NORTHERN IRELAND AND SOUTH AFRICA

Northern Ireland and South Africa have a long and strong interrelationship. Our most notable in our recent history is the Arniston Conference, or the Great Indaba (the Zulu word for “gathering of the minds”) in 1997. At this conference all the key parties of our peace process gathered in South Africa to meet with Nelson Mandela. Included in the meeting were Martin McGuinness, David Trimble and Peter Robinson. Seven weeks after the conference, Sinn Féin declared a cease-fire that paved the way for negotiations and ultimately the fragile Good Friday Agreement to share power, still in place today. A year later, Trimble and John Hume were awarded the Nobel Prize for peace.

I am not, however, a historian, and this artwork does not offer a historical perspective on Shakespeare or South African and Northern Irish relations. I merely offer you here the nodes of reference we have been considering while building Run to the Rock. All of these I have explored on and through the body – not the word or images purely but the actions on the body. Embodied exploration draws out different perspectives.

TRANSLATIONS

I have translated (appropriated-re-worked) the texts into Sign language and put them on the bodies of the performers as a fresh way to consider where we are here and now. The translator’s role is to go beyond the vocabulary of a text. It looks to what the meaning is and what metaphors are used. This, for our approach, demands a wider contextualized reading on the words and in this instance the context in which they were chose. How can a translation, performed on the body, add to this or rather bring new meaning and unexpected perspectives. I had to liberate myself from the text, jump off the speeches to find a new way of communicating them. We live through our bodies. Run to the Rock looks to reignite a reading of the world thought our bodies.

ON THE BODY – SIGN LANGUAGES: SASL + ISL + BSL

Sign language is at the core of this project. Sign is a language in motion, a form of communication that manifests on the body with choreographic impact. We have stepped into, and away from, these texts through sign language. Drawing these texts together as a cohort allows us an openness to their re-contextualisation. They facilitate us to speak to contexts of inequality, embodiment and ‘other’ in contemporary society, universal themes. These are explored on and through the bodies of the performers eschewing the verbal, predominate method of communication. Run to the Rock forefronts the embodied and the visual. When handling the text we have destabilized the location of the meaning making from the site of the verbal utterances to focus the meaning making on the body of the performers. We have fractured the speeches, elongate the words, repeat and loop phrases.

 

Amanda Coogan, Run to The Rock, 2016

Booking: http://belfastinternationalartsfestival.com/event/run-to-the-rock/