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Accessible Oliver Twist Comes To Leeds

February 27, 2020

Entering director Amy Leach’s rehearsal room at Leeds Playhouse, one of the first things you notice is the big screen at one end. As Leach explains, it’s there to display the script, freeing the performers’ hands to sign. It’s a reminder that integrating access into the theatre-making process involves rethinking habits and assumptions at every level. “It can be small; it can be massive,” says Leach.

Leach is currently rehearsing a new, fully accessible production of Oliver Twist. It’s the latest show staged as part of Ramps on the Moon, a programme that aims to put accessibility at the heart of theatre institutions. Placing deaf and disabled artists and audiences at the centre from day one, the production adopts what Jenny Sealey, artistic director of Graeae and dramaturg on this project, calls “an aesthetics of access”.

Dickens’s literature, with its rich description and bustling urban landscapes, generates countless creative possibilities for accessible storytelling. “When I was thinking about what would be a story that you could use all the senses to tell, Dickens felt like a great fit for that,” recalls Leach. “He’s so visual, but also you feel like you get all the sounds of London.”

She adds that Oliver Twist still has a bitter relevance today, particularly for disabled performers and audiences. “We’re not that far away from a Victorian society, actually, in so many aspects of government culture and benefits and all the rest of it,” she suggests. Sealey agrees “we are still living in a Dickensian world where desperate people do desperate things”.

Staging well-known classics like Oliver Twist is a key part of Ramps on the Moon’s strategy. “It’s about opening up audiences to maybe things that they wouldn’t normally be exposed to,” explains Leach. It’s also important, she notes, to give deaf and disabled actors the opportunity to play these much-loved roles, thereby shifting mindsets around casting. Sealey adds: “It’s about being valued, being given opportunities as artists, and not being pigeonholed.”

This Oliver Twist will be both familiar and unfamiliar. “Audiences come with a set of expectations when you do a Dickens story, so you don’t want to go too far away from those expectations,” says Leach. “In one sense, what you want to do is deliver a really vivid, Dickensian, Victorian world that’s got all those brilliantly bold characters that you know, and this adaptation absolutely hits all the plot points you would expect of an Oliver Twist. But on the flip side, we’ve really pushed the visual and aural storytelling across the piece.”

The language of Dickens – which, as Leach says, can be “dense” and “impenetrable” – has been stripped back to a spare, lean script designed to work on three levels: as spoken English, as British Sign Language, and as integrated audio description. “For a visually impaired audience, there has to be an element of storytelling,” explains adapter Bryony Lavery. Her script incorporates a composite character called “Us”: a chorus of storytellers responsible for making the narrative accessible for everyone in the audience.

Lavery, Leach and the rest of the team have also thought carefully about how placing deaf and disabled performers into this story might change and enrich the narrative. Lavery notes that “there are so many different versions of Oliver Twist, but this is very particular to who we are in this group of performers”. At the centre of this telling is a deaf Oliver, starved of communication as well as neglected and underfed.

This adaptation is steeped in research of 19th-century attitudes towards deafness. The thinking of the time is exemplified by the 1880 Milan Conference, which banned the use of sign language in schools – a decision that continues to have negative repercussions for the deaf community. In Leach and Lavery’s version, then, Fagin’s gang communicate covertly in BSL, adding an extra sense of the clandestine to their activities.

As Leach says, this approach is “the opposite of gender-blind or colourblind or disability-blind casting: when you embrace people’s actual identity, it just brings so much richness to things”. It suggests a cultural shift that appeals as much to imagination as it does to inclusion. “When it’s a creative thing then the possibilities are endless, aren’t they?” she says. “That’s the whole point of theatre.”

  • Oliver Twist is at Leeds Playhouse, 28 February-21 March. Then touring until 6 June.
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