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Actors with learning disabilities perform Shakespeare's Hamlet

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Emma Emma | 14:30 UK time, Thursday, 24 May 2012

Two cast members from Blue Apple Theatre's production of Hamlet

Blue Apple Theatre, a Winchester-based company of actors with learning disabilities, is touring the UK with their production of Hamlet to mark the World Shakespeare Festival.

Reworked by William Jessop, the performance is just over an hour, around a third of the length of the original. The company describes it as "a fresh, fearless and funny adaptation using Shakespeare's original language".

Many of the actors involved have Down's syndrome, which, Jessop says, can make performing Shakespeare's words a bit of a challenge.

"The faces of people with Down's syndrome are shaped slightly differently and some have bigger tongues, so we worked with a voice coach to ensure that everyone could be heard and understood. For one of our actors, it is about learning to open her mouth wider, for another it is keeping her tongue straighter when she speaks."

Throughout the writing process the cast attended workshops led by Jessop, so they could influence the script and appreciate the story. Though Shakespeare's 16th century language was unfamiliar before the workshops started, the actors had begun to get an insight into whether their characters were happy or sad by the tone and the sound in their mouths as they spoke.

"When I gave actors lines to perform at the start, they said them with incredible emotion, even though they didn't know what the words meant. We then went through each part of the original story, making sure that each line, and then each word, was understood by everyone."

The Stage magazine describes this version of Hamlet as: "Not Shakespeare as we know it", the production's impact lying "in the profound achievement of its cast - not in the terrible beauty of the play itself."

In response to this, Jessop is quick to assert that: "The actors are not repeating the lines parrot fashion. They are playing their parts and bringing out every single word. "

The next stage in the workshop process focused on adapting the original script to reflect the life experiences of the learning disabled actors; sometimes that meant modifying the story a little to make it easier to understand.

In the play as we know it, Hamlet and Ophelia's relationship was often cruel and violent, ending in Ophelia's suicide. Jessop remembers the learning disabled cast having trouble with this.

"Hamlet isn't particularly nice to Ophelia. The actors found it difficult to understand and identify with this aspect of the story. We rephrased it so that in our version, they are much more loving, almost like Romeo and Juliet."

Actor Tommy Jessop in the role of Hamlet.

Prince Hamlet is played by Tommy Jessop, a 27 year old actor with Down's syndrome. He's William's brother and the subject of a previous film by the director. Tommy also starred in the recent Bafta-nominated drama Coming Down the Mountain for BBC One.

The company believes he could be the first person with a learning disability to take on the title role in a professional production of Shakespeare's most famous of plays.

Tommy says it was his dream to play Hamlet and he has been preparing for the role for some time.

"I watched Kenneth Branagh, David Tennant and Mel Gibson on DVD and I went to see Rory Kinnear play him on stage."

There are two moments in the play which Tommy particularly enjoys performing:

"I like the 'to be or not to be' speech because it is the most famous speech in the world and because I get to act really big to the back of the audience. The sword fighting is really fun too."

This isn't the first time Blue Apple Theatre has attempted one of the Bard's works. Last year the company toured with their version of A Midsummer Night's Dream and William Jessop is ready to challenge anyone who thinks his casts shouldn't attempt Shakespeare.

"He is the greatest writer there's ever been. These stories are for everyone and have everything in them about humanity. Why shouldn't people with learning disability tackle these texts?"

• Blue Apple Theatre's Hamlet tours until late July. Watch the trailer and find out more on the Blue Apple Theatre website

Read Tommy Jessop's 13 Questions interview from 2010



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