The Last Five Years: a conversation between two cultures on stage


Welsh Theatre/Opera and Film director Angharad Lee has collaborated with Deaf choreographer, Mark Smith on a new production of ‘The Last Five Years’, a Broadway musical which follows the story of two twenty-something New Yorkers, who fall in and out of love over the course of five years. Lee and Smith have re-imagined the show for both Deaf and hearing audiences. Joe Turnbull spoke to the pair as the production prepares to go on a five-date Welsh tour.

Two men standing back to back

The Last Five Years – in rehearsal. Michael Hamway and Anthony Snowden (playing Jamie Wellerstein). Leeway Productions. photo by Kirsten McTernan

“If you know this musical you won’t recognise it,” enthuses Angharad Lee. “For hearing audiences that are familiar with the show, I think they will actually hear things within the musical they have never heard before, because of the additional elements, because of the British Sign Language (BSL) which cements meaning. There are many ways of experiencing sound – it doesn’t just happen through ears, it happens through sight, through visceral capacity.”

In 2016, Lee received a Creative Wales Award, which allows established practitioners space and time to experiment. Lee took the opportunity to interrogate sound, the meaning of music and different ways it could be experienced in a theatrical context. She was fascinated to explore how Deaf culture might interpret and experience a musical, and following a recommendation from Graeae’s Jenny Sealey was introduced to renowned Deaf choreographer, Mark Smith.

“She didn’t have a choice,” jokes Smith as they both burst into laughter. A close bond has clearly formed between the pair.

“We spent a week together, me learning from Mark about his skillset, how he accesses music, how he communicates it to his Deaf performers,” explains Lee. “We started talking about musicals and realised that we both loved them. I was telling Mark that I wanted to direct The Last Five Years and it organically came about through that.”

The Last Five Years follows the relationship between aspiring author Jamie and struggling actress Cathy through two different timelines. Jamie’s story is told from the beginning of the relationship to the end, and Cathy goes from the end to the beginning – with the two characters only actually meeting once in the middle.

Unique to this production of The Last Five Years, the libretto is translated into BSL, with both characters being played by two performers; a dancer and singer, with both sharing the responsibility for the BSL at times.

“Their relationship fails because of a breakdown in communication,” says Lee. “As a hearing audience, if I’m not understanding the BSL then automatically there’s a communication breakdown between actor and audience. The BSL explores the communication breakdown at a deeper level, which I love.”

There are practical reasons to choose this play as well, with there only ever being one character on stage for most of the story. “It made it manageable for a first attempt,” Lee observes. “I thought it would really allow us the space to explore each other’s practice. If it was a big piece with 16 people on stage it would have been too much to handle. We’ve been able to be really intricate, the cultures have really intertwined amongst each other because we have that space to do it.”

Smith’s choreography is characterised by fluidly integrating BSL into the movements. “For me I look at the literature and the story behind what emotions the characters are going through at that moment within the narrative,” Smith explains. “When I use BSL in my choreography I like to make it abstract and structured by a more dance-style of BSL. But with this show, it is very much BSL-led and in keeping with the story and the characters who are singing and signing as well.”

Bringing in more defined BSL movements wasn’t the only departure for Smith in working on this production. “I loved Angharad’s idea of using props in the choreography, that’s what attracted me to the project” he says. “Normally, carrying props is against the rules in BSL and Sign Supported English – it’s not appropriate – apart from having a pint of beer in your hand! The challenge of integrating that in my choreography was something new for me to explore.”

Raffie Julien and Lauren Hood

The Last Five Years – in rehearsal. Raffie Julien and Lauren Hood (playing Cathy Hiatt). Leeway Productions. photo by Kirsten McTernan

“For me, this is an investigation into how Deaf and hearing cultures co-author something, so that one culture isn’t dominant,” explains Lee.

“Bringing together Deaf dancers and hearing singers, I knew we needed a link between them. I wanted something that was tangible. I thought if they had one prop which they share, together, they have to follow that journey as a twosome and then we see the prop’s journey throughout the piece. Memory is so crucial in a prop. A wedding ring, which was once a thing of beauty and a symbol of joy, once you’re separated becomes this thing of poison.”

Other props integrated into the choreography include a mannequin, books, sheets and pillows. Like Smith, Lee also had to adapt her way of working to meet the demands of the production.

“I’ve had to change the way I direct, to link up with Mark’s style of work,” says Lee. “For example, I have given the performers really clear frameworks to work within. And all of these frameworks have been physical frameworks of movement, as a base, and then add all the layers on top. The choreography and the direction blend beautifully. You don’t know which each movement is – is that a piece of direction or of Mark’s choreography?”

Perhaps because of the fact both sides have had to adapt, the collaborative aspects have come to the fore, as Smith explains:

“There’s a lot of compromising between the two different cultures. As a Deaf person there are some moments and movements that don’t make sense to me with the BSL and I have to say so. We talk to each other about how to make it work along with the BSL translators Sally Thorpe and Daryl Jackson. As with any collaborative work, there’s a lot of compromise to make it equal.”

Lee expands: “I’m very aware that the hearing culture almost automatically becomes dominant, which is a real frustration. You have to keep yourself in check, because you get carried away. Every day you have to check yourself and realise you’re being led by your mindset, that has been the biggest learning curve.”

Lee caused Smith some alarm when she first told him she hates the word ‘access’.

“When you hear the word access – a barrier goes up. How do you market this? You don’t want to alienate hearing audiences – they can be so set in their ways. But how do we bring people together to realise they can have this beautiful collective experience? Finding the vocabulary to encourage that, especially in Wales where this is such new territory, is difficult.”

In many ways, Lee is right to be wary of the word. This show isn’t about access. It’s not about taking a play and tacking on some BSL interpretation, as Smith expands: “You can make this piece accessible, but in a thought-provoking creative way which gets people thinking about it and experiencing it in a new way. This is about reimagining and reinterpreting a Broadway musical from a different perspective.”

As the show prepares to take its first bow at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, I ask them what they are expecting from audiences:

“I really hope that loads of Deaf people will come and see the show because it’s very rare to have a musical that is created especially for them,” says Smith. “I’m hoping to see audiences where everyone is equal, where they are mixing together, sitting together and enjoying the show on the same wavelength and on the same journey.” Lee concurs: “I’m hoping that collective experience will transform what people’s thoughts are about musical theatre – it’s not just for the hearing.”

The Last Five Years, a Leeway Production is touring Wales:

Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff 9 – 17 November. Aberystwyth Arts Centre, 20 November. Galeri, Caernarfon, 22 November. Blackwood Miners’ Institute, 27 – 28 November. Ffwrnes, Llanelli, 29 November. Theatr Soar, Merthyr Tydfil, 1 December.