Lacquer, Louis XIV and lipspeaking at the Wallace Collection

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The last few weeks leading up to Easter have been pretty busy for me, so it was great to have a break. I have been preoccupied with hopes and fears about my future. I finally reached the end of the assessment for my suitability for a cochlear implant operation. I recently found out that I have been accepted for a cochlear implant. This is great news and I’m really happy about it. But I’m also worried about what lies ahead and I really hope that it is successful.

I worry that the implantation itself will kill off what little natural hearing I have left. But I also feel that I have not got much to lose now so I may as well go for it. Everyday communication has now become so difficult for me that I want to give myself the best chance I possibly can to be able to hear and communicate better with others. Deciding whether or not to have a cochlear implant is a very personal and difficult decision to make, but for me, I now know that I have made the right decision. It would be so wonderful to be able to follow peoples’ conversations and communicate better, instead of hearing half conversations , feeling left out and frustrated or having to rely on my wife and family members to communicate on my behalf.

For the last few years, I’ve felt like I’ve been stuck in-between the hearing world and the deaf world, without feeling fully part of either. I had my full hearing for the first thirty-nine years of my life, so losing it quite suddenly has been a big shock to me, and I am still trying to come to terms with it and learn to adjust to it as best I can.

I have been learning to use lots of different communication methods to try and follow people better. One of them is learning how to lipread people. I find it really difficult and tiring to concentrate hard on peoples’ lip patterns to try and understand what they are saying. It seems to be easier when I am in a quiet environment so that I can hear a little too, but when it’s noisy it is very difficult.

I can lipread my wife Joanna quite well now, but that it is because I know her lip patterns quite well and she is really deaf-aware, speaking clearly and always facing me. On the other hand, if the person I am talking to is not deaf-aware and they keep looking away, or they talk too quickly or mumble their words, it is virtually impossible for me to lip-read them. Hopefully my lipreading will get better in time too, but I still find it really difficult. This is one of the reasons why I really enjoy going to events, which have been made accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people. Recently, for instance, I went to a fascinating accessible talk for lipreaders at the Wallace Collection in Central London. This was a free event organised by the Wallace Collection’s Community Access programme.  Sara Scanlon and Lynne Dubin, the two lipspeakers, were both excellent communicators, which made it much easier for me to follow.

Because English is my first language, my preferred method of accessible communication at an event like this would ideally be live speech-to-text reporting (STTR) on a screen, if the technology were available, but I am open-minded and still finding my own way with different communication methods. I think there is no right and wrong way as long as you can follow what is being said and can communicate well. I found that Sara, in particular, was an excellent communicator because she provided total communication support. She used clear lip-speaking patterns with some sign-supported English (SSE), which I found really easy and helpful to follow. I am now learning BSL and I am finding that I am becoming more visual myself by learning to communicate in this visual, expressive language, although I find it difficult to learn and it will take me years to become any good at it.

The two speakers/guides, Carmen and Edwina, from the Wallace Collection, were excellent too. They took their time to explain things slowly and clearly to us, which really helped my understanding. Carmen, the Curatorial Assistant, gave us a talk about materials and techniques of the decorative arts, which are on display in the Wallace Collection.

She started off by giving us a brief history of the Wallace Collection before going on to describe some of the materials and techniques used in the decorative arts displayed there. The collection itself is housed in Hertford House, a stunning Georgian town house on Manchester Square, which is like an oasis of calm just behind the hustle and bustle of crowded Oxford Street. It displays the beautiful works of art, furniture and ornaments collected by the first four Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, the illegitimate son of the fourth Marquess. It was bequeathed to the British nation by Sir Richard’s widow, Lady Wallace, in 1897, and turned into a public museum in1900.

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The collection includes many paintings by artists such as Titian, Rembrandt and Velázquez, and I only recently discovered that the most famous painting there is ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ by Hals. Most of Carmen’s talk then focused on the techniques and materials used in the making of the furniture and ornaments used in the collection such as marquetry, which is a way of adding patterns to plain objects using thin veneers of materials such as wood, metal, horn, turtle shell or mother of pearl. The technique was very fashionable in the 17th Century and was used in the design of furniture such as cabinets and other pieces of furniture made of wood.

She said that one of the most famous cabinet-makers of the 17th Century, who used marquetry, was André Charles Boulle (1642-1732), who was furniture maker to King Louis XIV of France. Many of his pieces of furniture are in the Wallace Collection, which we then went on to see after the talk.

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The other main technique, which Carmen described in her talk, was the making of lacquer in Japan, a technique still used today in the making of objects created when the lacquer is applied to a base, such as wood. Her description of the technique was fascinating because it is a very slow, laborious technique involving pure craftsmanship and skill. Basically, lacquer is made from collecting sap from a specific tree in the Japanese countryside and applying many thin layers on the wood until the finished product is hardened and looks glossy. Then various decorative patterns and inlay work is often painted onto the lacquer and it ended up with a very high quality, glossy finish. Lacquer was very fashionable and expensive in 17th and 18th Century Europe and we saw examples of beautiful Japanese lacquer cabinets using intricate inlay work upstairs in the Wallace Collection.

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I liked the fact that Carmen’s talk was very visual and tactile. She handed round many examples of objects for us to look at such as a delicate hand-painted lacquer bowl, pieces of wood with marquetry patterns on them and a turtle shell. We also had a good look at the marquetry cabinets and lacquer objects in the collection itself that she had described to us downstairs during the talk.

I really enjoyed this talk and tour of the Wallace Collection. It took my mind off thinking about my cochlear implant operation for a while. I felt that I had learned something new about the materials and techniques used in the making of some of the objects and furniture held at the Wallace Collection. These events really help to boost my confidence and I meet new people. It makes it so much easier for me when the access is good and I have the total communication support to meet my needs. I’m already looking forward to the next lipspeakers’ event, which is a walking tour of the history of Regents’ Park with Lynne and Sara in May.

King Lear at the National Theatre: An Accessible Family Affair

I was really pleased that I had managed to get tickets for the captioned performance of Sam Mendes’s production of ‘King Lear’ at the National Theatre last week. When I told some of my friends afterwards they couldn’t believe I had been so fortunate as they said it had sold out months ago and they were unable to get tickets.

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I had been looking forward to it for ages and I wanted to find out whether it was really worth all the hype. I’d not seen ‘King Lear’ before at the theatre so after quickly reading up on the synopsis of the plot beforehand I headed off to the theatre with my wife Joanna and my sister to see one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies.

Once inside, the theatre was packed out. It was great that we had really good seats in the stalls with perfect views of the two STAGETEXT caption units on either side of the stage. We were also very close to a kind of runway, which ran through the stalls and onto the stage. The runway was used throughout the play to heighten the dramatic tension as the actors either ran along it or gave some of their greatest speeches on it. This seemed to make it appear more immediate somehow, as it was used as a bridge between the audience and the stage.

When the play began, I was struck by how amazing it all looked on the stage. It was set in relatively modern times, and Mendes had designed it to look like a fascist military dictatorship such as Stalin’s Russia or Nazi Germany. Much of the cast was dressed in military uniforms and later in the play King Lear’s knights, who formed his entourage, were all dressed in black SS-style military uniforms, adding to the authoritarian tone of King Lear’s leadership.

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I didn’t find this an easy play to watch because it is so dark, heavy and tragic. At times I felt like I was almost enduring it rather than enjoying it. But the acting was superb and the plot totally gripping despite its dark undertones and capacity to shock people. It is a complex play with two plots running simultaneously, but despite this, I found I could follow the dialogue well through the captions.

Simon Russell Beale, who played the main character King Lear, was absolutely incredible. He managed to play the role very convincingly of a very tough, ruthless pre-Roman King of England at the start, who controlled his subjects and his daughters with an iron fist, but then he turned into a tragic old man, who ends up becoming broken and mad with remorse when he realises how wrong he has been and how unjust he was to his youngest daughter Cordelia. He had banished her to France for not flattering him and telling him how much she loved him (even though she really did) in order to inherit a third of the country, unlike her two sisters, who had insincerely declared their love for him to get their fortune.

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He stumbles and rages around the stage throughout the play like a man possessed. But somehow, it is only when he loses his mind that he suddenly seems more human and compassionate towards others, such as Gloucester’s eldest son Edgar, who was betrayed by his illegitimate brother Edmund and wrongly cast out of his home by his father. He also showed true compassion to Gloucester himself, who has been brutally blinded in his own home by Lear’s evil daughter Regan and her husband Cornwall. It must take incredible experience and training as an actor to portray such a complex character as convincingly as this, and Simon Russell Beale played the role with real depth, conviction and passion.

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The rest of the actors played their roles superbly too, particularly Kate Fleetwood and Hannah Stokely, who played Lear’s cruel and manipulative daughters Goneril and Regan. Goneril is portrayed as a ruthless, ambitious woman, who will stop at nothing to get what she wants and Regan is a cruel, vampish sex kitten, who easily betrays her husband and seduces Edmund behind his back, while also sadistically enjoying watching Gloucester being tortured and having his eyes torn out as punishment for hiding the whereabouts of her father.

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I also thought that Stephen Boxer, who played the Earl of Gloucester, was excellent. I could feel how anguished, distraught and vulnerable he must have felt after he had been blinded so cruelly, when he was wandering around the stage unable to see anything and having to be guided by his son Edgar.

There were many shocking and violent scenes in this production, as well as some scenes of nudity on the stage. At times I saw several elderly people in the audience wince and squirm in their seats uneasily at the more bloody scenes and the nudity. For instance, when Lear bludgeoned his loyal Fool to death for no apparent reason in a bathtub when he was losing his mind, and the final scene containing the murders and suicides of the main characters. But this play is depicting an evil time in history, so I didn’t find the scenes of violence at all gratuitous. They were just true to Shakespeare’s original play, which is bloody and violent, so I felt they were necessary and made the scenes seem more authentic.

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At the end along with the rest of the audience, we gave the actors a well-deserved standing ovation. I am still amazed at how well they can perform such complex, dark Shakespearian tragedies such as this with such conviction and depth of emotion. I really loved this production and so did my wife and sister.

My sister told me afterwards how much she had enjoyed watching a live quality performance such as this. She told me that the captions really helped her too, because even though she could hear the dialogue clearly, she found it really useful to read the captions to follow it better. They help everybody, whether you have a hearing loss or not.

I think STAGETEXT and the National Theatre have done a fantastic job in making this great production so accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people. I felt so lucky to have been able to enjoy it with my family on equal terms with everyone else there.