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To Be or Not to Be: Blue Apple Theatre’s Hamlet Goes on Tour

  • Date: 1 May 2012
  • Area: South East, South West
two men sword fighting

James Elsworthy playing Laertes in Hamlet, Blue Apple Theatre, 2012. Credit: William Jessop

A Winchester learning disabled inclusive theatre company is taking their unique adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic tale of revenge and treachery to mainstream theatres across the South, thanks to a Grants for the arts award.

Award-winning Blue Apple Theatre is taking a touring company of six actors with learning disabilities on a 20-stop professional tour of Hamlet, starting in Aldershot and ending in Winchester from 3 May to 7 July.

The company was awarded a £24,660 Grants for the arts award to support the tour. Grants for the arts invests National Lottery money to support activities that engage people in the arts and helps artists and arts organisations with their work.

Jane Jessop, Blue Apple Theatre Founding Director, explains how their first professional theatre production for actors with Down’s Syndrome and other learning difficulties has been an enjoyable learning curve.
Jane says: ‘We’re now in the last week before we start our tour and it’s pretty intense. One of the great things we’re learning is that in meeting these challenges on stage, the actors keep growing and showing us more. The actors range from 20 to 32, some with Down’s Syndrome. They’re all local. One is a professional actor but others are not but would like to be, particularly Claudius.’

The actors performing in Hamlet are Tommy Jessop, Anna Brisbane, James Elsworthy, Katy Francis, Lawrie Morris and Ros Davies, but their main company has over 30 able and learning-disabled adults who create two major productions a year.

Hamlet is the company’s most ambitious project to date. Blue Apple Theatre was founded in 2005 to use the skills and enhanced confidence gained through performing on stage as an opportunity for raising the ceiling of expectation for people with learning disabilities.

Jane says: ‘The reason we wanted to do Hamlet was to knock people’s socks off. People might shake their heads and think performers with learning disabilities could not present Hamlet with integrity, but our actors want to do Shakespeare. It is a chance to explore the emotional side of things more deeply, and for Hamlet himself it’s a wonderful thing to be exploring. The actor who plays Claudius has  DVDs of all of Shakespeare’s plays. The actor who plays Hamlet has been on TV and he was the first lead for BBC with learning disabilities (Coming Down the Mountain). He loves relating to the audience.’

The Grants for the arts award has enabled the company to work with a range of theatre professionals.
Jane explains: ‘We’ve been working with a wonderful voice and language coach from the RSC, and an artistic director who has over 30 years experience of touring theatre. Today we were working with a fight director for the sword fighting scenes. The show has professional costumes and lighting, a choreographer and a tour manager.’

The new production of Hamlet will be taking the learning disabled actors before mainstream audiences at a number of arts venues, theatres and also mainstream and learning disabled schools.

Jane says: ‘It’s fantastic that we have 20 venues that trust us enough to put us on. We’re encouraging Mencap to bring its members to shows to create a new audience. We’re also doing some street theatre at Hat Fair. Amongst others we’re performing at  The Normanfield Theatre, which is the home of the Downs Syndrome Association, the beautiful medieval Unicorn Theatre in Abingdon where we expect an audience of about 60% people with learning difficulties, the very large Rose Theatre Kingston, and the open air Minack in Cornwall.’

‘The tour then comes back to Winchester and this performance will bring together the whole company, with 35 people on stage.

‘With Hamlet, we want to raise the profile of our actors, and in the Olympic year, it seemed right to aim really high and with the World Shakespeare Festival happening, Hamlet seemed a perfect fit. We want people to think and to talk about the show and to get recognition for the actors. Most importantly we want people to have an engaging and entertaining evening.’

Blue Apple Theatre’s Hamlet is performing to 3 May to 7 July at venues across the South of England. For more information, see Follow them on Twitter @BlueAppleHamlet