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Barriers to the Bard: Accessibility in Shakespearean Theatre

My experience watching the Soho Place rendition of as *As You Like It* reminded me why theater needs to be more inclusive and accessible.

Mar 6, 2023

Sound is the first thing I see. On the stage is a piano, and the lone figure of a man with his fingers pressed to the keys, allowing each note to ring across the space, blending one into another before coming to a crescendo. In the darkness, I see the image of the notes as I hear them, each one appearing on the screen across from me, a screen that will later be used to provide subtitles as the actors take to the stage. Goosebumps appear along my arms. The play begins.
The production is As You Like It, one of Shakespeare’s most well-known comedies. It features many of the hijinks often found in his comedies: crossdressing characters, inappropriate jokes, forest settings, meta-theatrical references, and the marriage-plot ending. If you were wondering where the iconic phrase, “all the world’s a stage” came from, you have your answer. (Yes, it’s this one.)
But, fundamentally, As You Like It is about communication. When Orlando (Shakespeare’s protagonist) first meets his love, Rosalind, he is unable to form coherent sentences. Many scenes feature Rosalind articulating her feelings to her confidant and cousin, Celia, with the two of them telling and retelling stories of interactions with other characters. Duke Senior, Rosalind’s banished father, spends much of his time in the forest conversing with his companions. In fact, in the later acts of the play, the theme of communication is heightened through its central romance, where Rosalind (in disguise as a man) begins to instruct Orlando on the ways of love by offering to pretend to be his ‘lost love’.
It is this theme that the Soho Place rendition of the play manages to capture most beautifully, a feat due in no small part to its stellar cast. Amongst the many talented actors on stage, Rose Ayling-Ellis’ performance as Celia tugged at my heartstrings the most. Her reactions to Rosalind’s lovestruckness are endlessly entertaining, as she rolls her eyes and exchanges glances with the pianist (musician and composer Michael Bruce) while Rosalind presents her monologue about Orlando. At one point, she confronts her father, Duke Frederick, when he banishes Rosalind. Celia’s plea that he revoke his decision to exile her cousin (who is more like a sister) made my eyes prick with tears.
Ayling-Ellis herself is a twenty-eight year old British actress, perhaps best known for her role on the BBC soap opera EastEnders and as a contestant on the British reality show Strictly Come Dancing. She is also Deaf. Her performance in As You Like It is in a mix of British Sign Language, Sign Supported English and expressive physical gestures — all of which is made clearer for non-BSL speaking audiences by the four screens on each side of the stage that carry subtitles. And she is not the only one: Gabriella Leon, who plays a raunchy shepherdess, is also Deaf.
Two days after the performance I saw, a man in the audience stood up and screamed that the performers were “discriminating against hearing people.” Ayling-Ellis later posted on her Instagram that the encounter was “shocking” and that he looked directly at her as he shouted. She followed up by pointing out that the inclusive approach taken in the Soho Place rendition of As You Like It allows “[d]eaf members of the audience…to sit wherever they want and whenever they want” and that, at a BSL performance show, 106 deaf people turned up.
“This is why we do accessible theater,” Ayling-Ellis wrote in her post.
As appalling as the incident is, it raises some important questions about theater and its accessibility, especially in the realm of Shakespeare. Who, for instance, do we consider traditionally ‘fit’ to act in Shakespeare’s plays? What defines a Shakespearean actor?
[Miranda Fay Thomas][], an Assistant Professor of Theatre and Performance at Trinity College Dublin, highlights in a 2021 article for the Société Française Shakespeare that the “authentic” Shakespearean actor has historically been seen as white, male, and “able-bodied”. The very idea of authenticity, however, is a problem as this concept is “culturally contingent,” tied to the day and age in which it is performed and perceived. Any attempt to replicate the “original practice” followed in Shakespeare’s day (which is tied to the notion of authenticity), furthermore, is incredibly limiting, meaning only able-bodied men can act on stage.
In recent years, theatre professionals have grown increasingly aware and concerned about the issues of representation on the Shakespearean stage. Management representatives for the rebuilt Shakespeare’s Globe theater, where his plays were initially performed, have spoken up about the issue. Artistic Director Michelle Terry announced her intention to diversify casting in 2017, making it “gender blind, race-blind, [and] disability blind.” More and more productions are beginning to feature increasingly diverse casts. Ayling-Ellis, for instance, is not the first deaf actress to play Celia; Nadia Nadarajah played the character in the Globe’s production of As You Like It, and not just in Britain. In a rendition of Richard III performed in New York’s Central Park last year, Danai Gurira (who plays Okoye in Black Panther) starred as the title character alongside several differently-abled actors, including Monique Holt (who is a Deaf performer), to mixed reviews%2C%20Thaddeus%20S.).
While these efforts to make Shakespearean theater more inclusive are hopeful and well-meaning, they are not without their own problems. For one thing, even the term “blind casting” has been critiqued as ableist. For another, as researcher Hailey Bachrach notes, just because casting is “blind” does not mean that the audience will be, underscoring the importance of not just passively accepting diverse casting in theater but embracing these facets of identity and allowing them to be actively performed.
Adaptations like the Soho Place As You Like It do just that — and they are better for it. When Ayling-Ellis’ Celia pleads with her father not to banish Rosalind, she is forced to switch from sign language to speaking aloud. This served to highlight Duke Frederick’s lack of care and consideration for anyone but himself (including his own daughter) by refusing to communicate with Celia on her terms. Later in the play, Orlando’s wicked brother Oliver nearly dies, leading him to re-evaluate his life and ‘turn good’ (so to speak). He goes to tell Rosalind what has happened to Orlando (who is injured) and falls instantly in love with Celia. As Oliver tells Celia the story, he notices Rosalind signing his words and copies her, choosing to approach his soon-to-be wife by literally learning the language she speaks. These moments are subtle, but they add layers to the theme of communication that is so central to the play.
The version of As You Like It I saw at Soho Place is a masterclass in accessible and inclusive theater. Celia’s deafness is never directly addressed but is nonetheless integrated into the performance in ways that elevate the play’s themes and concerns. Casting Ayling-Ellis in the role is an asset, not a concession. Under director Josie Rourke’s leadership, As You Like It is brought to life for deaf and non-deaf audiences alike, allowing us to relish the love, life, and laughter playing out across the stage.
Shakespeare is better for it, and so are we.
Amal Surmawala is a Staff Writer. Email them at
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