This week I took my step-father Brian to see his first captioned theatre performance, something we’d all been looking forward to for a long time. Brian is a regular theatre-goer in his seventies and has been watching plays at the Royal Exchange in Manchester since it first opened over thirty years ago.
Recently though, he told me that he’d been having difficulty hearing the dialogue and following the plot. He has a moderate hearing loss and wears a hearing aid but he doesn’t use hearing loops, as no-one as ever explained how they work to him. He has increasingly been finding it a real struggle to hear the plays. He usually has to ask my mother to explain the plot to him, which is really frustrating for both of them.
I said to Brian a while ago that I thought that he would really benefit from going to see captioned theatre performances, which would make the whole experience much more accessible to him. He was really pleased to hear this and seemed really enthusiastic to go and try it out for himself. So we booked the Talawa Company’s production of Arthur Miller’s play ‘All My Sons’, produced by Michael Buffong and captioned by STAGETEXT.
I grew up in Cheshire and regularly used to go into Manchester, but I’d not seen a play at the Royal Exchange before. When we arrived there the other night, I was struck by how beautiful the historic building was from the outside, all lit up in colourful lights. It used to be the old Corn Exchange, and is a landmark building in the city centre with classic architecture and tall ornate pillars.
Inside though, the modern theatre sits under the dome of the old building like a round spaceship on scaffolding. As we went into the theatre space and took our places I was wondering how the position of the caption units would work in such a round theatre space, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were three caption units positioned at eye level, with one of them placed directly opposite us. Also, our seats were perfectly positioned on the lower tier, close to the stage.
The theatre was packed. I didn’t see a single spare seat that night, reflecting the popularity of this production, which had received rave reviews. There were people of all age groups in the audience, from pensioners sitting close by to lots of young people standing in the top tier. I noticed disabled people in wheelchairs sitting close by us and many elderly people with hearing aids. I was pleased at how accessible it all seemed.
The play was set in America in 1947 and this production featured an all-black cast. All the action took place in the Keller family’s backyard. Since we were so close to the stage, I felt that we could almost touch the set. I really like these smaller, more intimate theatres where you are so close, you almost feel part of the action. It reminded me of the Trafalgar Studios in London, which is really cosy and informal.
The play is focused on the Keller family and is based on a true story. The father and main character, Joe Keller, played by the actor Don Warrington from ‘Rising Damp’ fame, has a dark secret, which he and his wife Kate (played by the actress Doña Croll) have been hiding for several years. Joe is a ruthless businessman, who during the Second World War provided faulty machine parts to the military, which resulted in the death of twenty-one pilots. In order to cover this up and save his business, Joe allowed his weak business partner to take the wrap for him, who is still in jail for the crime while Joe is thriving with a successful business and family.
Meanwhile, Joe and Kate’s son, Larry, a pilot, has been missing in action for three and a half years. Joe’s wife Kate refuses to believe that he is dead and is still waiting for him to return home. She thinks that if she recognises that he is dead, that would be like admitting that her husband is guilty of killing him, along with all the other pilots. The story becomes more complex as their other son Chris, has fallen in love with Larry’s girlfriend, Anna, who has agreed to marry him. Kate is horrified at this and tries to force Anna to leave their home without Chris.
The main themes of the play are all about the selfishness of putting money and business above humanity, and the guilt that that brings. It’s also about the grief of loved ones and regret for things people have done in the past. Arthur Miller wanted this play to appeal to the common man, and these central themes are universal and just as relevant today as they were in the post-war period.
The play was full of dramatic tension throughout and the dialogue was gripping. The First Act seemed quite slow-paced to me at first, but it was a slow-burner, building up to the highly dramatic and unexpected finale at the end of the Second Act.
I thought that all the actors played their characters superbly, but Don Warrington particularly stood out for me. He gave a really powerful, dramatic performance as the patriarch of the family, who believed that the terrible actions he had done in the past were justified for the sake of his sons and family. But in the end his actions came back to haunt him and ended up destroying him.
Afterwards, I chatted about the play with Brian and he told me he thought it was wonderful and very well acted. He also said that without the captions, he would have found it very difficult to follow the dialogue, particularly as it’s a round theatre. He told me he was surprised that captioning is not more widely available, as he thought it would be helpful to everyone. He seemed really enthusiastic about it and told me he’d love to see more captioned theatre.
My mum, who doesn’t have a hearing loss, agreed with Brian. She told me that she too found the captions useful, particularly when the actors had their backs to us, as they did throughout a lot of the First Act, and she couldn’t always catch what they were saying. I too sometimes found it difficult to understand their strong American accents, which weren’t always flowing and convincing, so it was easier for all of us to read the captions while watching the actors.
My family and I really enjoyed this performance and we all really benefitted from the captions, whether anyone had a hearing loss or not. It just made the whole experience much more accessible to all of us. Brian seemed to have re-kindled his love of theatre through seeing his first captioned performance. He’s now looking forward to seeing many more in the future.