Birds of Paradise teamed up with Òran Mór to produce Role Shift, written by Lesley Hart and directed by Garry Robson, to play as part of the Glasgow venue’s A Play, a Pie and a Pint series, both in Glasgow and at Ayr Gaiety Theatre and Arts Centre. Sandra Alland reviews this new production that turns the spotlight on the role of the sign language interpreter in a gender bending, toe swap comedy.
If you’ve followed Birds of Paradise Theatre Company there are things you will have come to expect. As a disabled and/or D/deaf audience member, you’ll be assured of certain kinds of access: step-free entrances, surtitles, BSL-interpretation and audio description. You can also anticipate something even rarer than access: disabled and Deaf-centred stories. You’ll know, too, that much of the access to the play will form an integral part of the action, which will add multifaceted layers of understanding (and comedy) for any audience member.
Disabled or non-disabled, you’ll enter the space excitedly wondering, ‘What will they do this time?’ And whoever you are, you can expect to laugh, think and, well, probably blush.
Role Shift is no exception to the rule. It’s a silly, dirty and thoughtful piece that delves into the character and ‘role’ of Carrie, a British Sign Language interpreter on a cruise ship, played flawlessly by actor and interpreter Natalie MacDonald. Tired of interpreting boring performances, Carrie sets out to find more interesting encounters – and quickly becomes embroiled in a strange relationship between two drunken gamblers on separate unhappy holidays.
MacDonald interprets her own monologues and interactions, as well as everything else said onstage, thus becoming a perfect device to integrate BSL seamlessly into the performance. This form of creative access is a relief compared to the potential split-focus caused by the awkward add-on of the interpreter standing to the side of the stage. Hart’s smart device of writing a character this way also draws immediate attention to the theme of translation (and what can get lost in it, despite an interpreter’s talented efforts).
With unexpected and saucy results, our interpreter Carrie jumps into the lives of Ally (Softley Gale), a newly-wed disabled man dumped by his husband, and Bernie (Louise McCarthy), a shot-shooting non-disabled woman who competes with him at roulette and for men. Though at times a fluffy tale of sexual and gender fluidity, at its heart Role Shift is really about the fluidity of identity in general, and more specifically the loss of identity a BSL-interpreter can experience during ‘role shift’.
As an interpreter of any language, one doesn’t relay a story in the third person (e.g. ‘She said she can’t even suck your cock.’ – not a random example, ahem, a line from the play). Instead, an interpreter becomes the person they’re speaking for. In this case Carrie signs, ‘I can’t even suck your cock’. There’s a danger that this shifting of self can take a psychological toll on interpreters as they become caught up speaking in the ‘I’ for other people. It can become especially confusing and even distressing interpreting for several people at once – and the distress can be exacerbated by not being permitted to insert an opinion.
Hart’s script also uses Carrie’s experience to ask on a deeper level, ‘What makes me “me”, and how do I retain that in relation to others?’ Carrie becomes so enmeshed in her own role shifts while engaging in the world of the two holiday-goers that she follows them to bed and precipitates another form of role shift – a Freaky Friday event where Ally and Bernie switch bodies.
With quick-paced and witty dialogue, often delivered in brilliantly funny rhyming couplets, Hart has given the cast a gift of a script. Softley Gale and McCarthy never miss a beat as the sparring Ally and Bernie. All three actors have impeccable comedic timing, and are never afraid to take things to the extreme. MacDonald shines as the confused narrator of events.
The script does rely at times on cisgender stereotypes about kinds of genitals and their connection to gender, and it’s a shame the ‘gender-switch’ is written mainly as comedy, because although the raunchiness is admirable the jokes do descend slightly into schoolyard humour. However, Softley Gale and McCarthy play the wonder at having changed bodies in a way that circumvents the potential overkill of these scenes. And Hart does ask some interesting questions about gendered bodies by having Ally talk about the absurdity of not being allowed to go topless once in Bernie’s body.
What’s more developed and utterly compelling in the script is the characters’ switch from disabled to non-disabled body, and vice-versa. Hart explores this adeptly, setting up the ‘Holy shit I can walk and water ski!’ and ‘Your body is a prison’ narrative, only to topple it in fascinating ways. Robson has deftly directed his actors to find exactly the right tone for these scenes, and they stand out for their power. There’s a lot of depth to this short comedy, and the audience is taken far in only an hour.
Which brings me back to what to expect from Birds of Paradise. Even in the middle of a ridiculous penis joke, you’ll find a deep and moving thought about what it means to each of us to be in our bodies and minds, and how that meaning is often very different to what others might assume.