A digital visual theatre production from writer-director Ramesh Meyyappan incorporating illusions, movement and BSL dialogue, The Coat was rehearsed and performed under Covid-19 restrictions. Inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s short story The Overcoat, The Coat tells the story of Amara, trapped by poverty until a new coat heralds a new beginning. Ahead of its digital run at the end of this month, we caught up with Ramesh and some of the cast of The Coat from this year’s graduating cohort from the BA Performance in BSL and English course.
The Coat is streaming from 28 June. Tickets are available for free via the RCS Box Office.
“Like most classics, the themes from Gogol’s The Overcoat are entirely universal and some very pertinent in today’s UK: loneliness, bullying, status, oppression,” says Ramesh. The Glasgow-based Singaporean theatre maker says that he was drawn to the story having watched his father work long, hard hours during his childhood: “For all his efforts, we were still poor… having that as your life, it does kind of stay with you.” While reading the short story, Ramesh says that he began to think of Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, which shares clear parallels with his production in which, “poverty has Amara trapped in her place”.
“It is an adaptation of Gogol’s Overcoat – the basic premise is the same,” says Ramesh. However, along with an updated period setting (from the 1800s to the 1980s) and the visual motif of a blue butterfly (a symbol of metamorphosis, he says), female protagonist Amara is one of the key differences between Ramesh’s play and the Russian tale of an impoverished government clerk.
Changing the gender of the main character was a necessity due to the largely female cast, which Ramesh says was one of the major challenges of the production. He was aware of the need “to understand the female perspective and ensure this was portrayed”. Benedetta Zanetti, who plays Amara’s landlady Mrs. McKendrick, appreciated the change: “I found it brilliant that he adapted the character’s gender”. Irina Vartopeanu, who plays seamstress Petra, says that she, “really liked how the gender has been turned upside down, giving a different flavour to the atmosphere of the story”.
As well as class and gender, this play – which is written, directed, and performed by D/deaf performers and theatre makers – raises issues of accessibility. Reflecting on the experience of working with the soon-to-be graduating BA Performance in BSL and English cohort, Ramesh says, “Being deaf myself, I always feel more of a sense of responsibility for the other ‘deaf’ students. This sounds as though they are given preferential treatment…it’s really not that though!” He is aware that there have not always been opportunities for D/deaf performers, and so, “for me it really is important that – presented with the opportunity that RCS have afforded this group – they really have to make the most of it, it has to work.”
The performers have taken full advantage of both the opportunity to work with Ramesh and their training at RCS. Claire Wetherall, who plays Petra’s daughter Damia, says, “I came to RCS because of the outstanding training for D/deaf actors, and I have loved every minute of my time there. It’s a really wide-ranging training, which particularly explores visual and physical performance… [Ramesh] is highly talented in VV (Visual Vernacular) physical theatre, and has encouraged me to develop my expressive skills without relying on either sign or spoken language. I explored the role using VV only at first, and then added props.”
While The Coat was written by Ramesh to be performed in front of a live audience, the production was rehearsed and performed during the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions. He says, “This was a new challenge – and, I have to say, a new opportunity to develop skills and work in ways I wasn’t entirely used to or familiar with. There was a benefit of doing digital performance, providing scope to explore a visual cinematic language.”
However, he must acknowledge the downsides. “Zoom is not ideal for working, particularly when the participants are signing”. Benedetta also found it tough – “Honestly I found it to be incredibly difficult… there was a scene where I needed to help Amara getting up from the floor and I couldn’t touch her! It was a good challenge though: me and all the other actors, director included, had to change perspective”.
Claire, from Newcastle originally, points out one major benefit of the online production: “I am thrilled that my family in other places in the UK will be able to see the film!”
Despite all the challenges of performing under Covid-19 restrictions, the cast have learned a lot from their director. “Working with Ramesh has been fantastic: he’s such a good director and a lovely and kind person. He supported and helped me a lot through the whole process and I really respect his work,” says Irina.
Benedetta says, Ramesh is the “kind of director that lets the actors play and encourages them to offer and find ideas about their characters for themselves, instead of giving specific instructions from the start. I really admired that and appreciated the respect that he had for us as actors, even if we’re still students.”
These actors won’t be students for much longer, however, with their graduation ceremony only a few days away. So what’s next? Claire says, “I plan to split my time between Glasgow and Newcastle, with also some travelling! I’m looking forward to acting with deaf and hearing professionals in the future!” For Irina, “After graduation I’m applying for funding for a research and development project and I’m going to write for screen.” Finally, Benedetta says, “I plan to develop my own projects, I want to write for screen and theatre and develop my interest in directing, of which I recently had a small taste which I really, really enjoyed.”
The Coat will be available to stream via the RCS Box Office from 28 June until 12 July. Ramesh is currently working on a new script focusing on dementia in the D/deaf community. More information about his work can be found on his website.
Our Creative Summer School for Young Deaf People will run from 26-30 July. Find out more here.