The Ruling Class at the Trafalgar Studios: in a different class

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I first saw James McAvoy on the stage nearly two years ago in March 2013. He was playing the lead role in Macbeth at the Trafalgar Studios. It was Director Jamie Lloyd’s first season of his ‘Trafalgar Transformed’ seasons, with the second one on now. It was also the first time I had ever seen a play captioned by STAGETEXT to make it accessible to me, and it changed my life.

At the time, I had been progressively losing my hearing for over three years, which had left me very hard of hearing. I was struggling to hear anything and to be able to communicate with people, so it was a difficult time for me. When I saw my first captioned performance, it was a complete revelation to me. It opened up my eyes to the joys and wonders of seeing live accessible theatre. I could actually enjoy it on equal terms to everyone else in the audience.

James McAvoy was incredible in this raw, bloody production, giving a truly captivating performance as the powerful but flawed Macbeth. He ended up being destroyed by his own blood-thirsty ambition and tortured by his own guilt at the murders he’d committed in his relentless quest to be King. His gripping performance left a lasting impression on me.

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As soon as I found out that James McAvoy would be returning to star in Jamie Lloyd’s new production of The Ruling Class at the Trafalgar Studios, I knew I had to buy tickets to see it. I rushed down to the Box Office the same day and bought tickets for my wife and myself, along with some of my deaf and hard of hearing friends, to see the captioned performance.

When I arrived at the Trafalgar Studios last Monday night, the place was packed. I think the combination of the popularity and fame of James McAvoy and the fact that tickets are priced at only £15 every Monday night to appeal to a more diverse, younger crowd of theatregoers than the usual West End crowd, added to the busyness of the theatre.

Ruling Class blog_Richard + ticket

Right from the start, I was hooked. The opening scene was shocking, showing the accidental death of the pompous 13th Earl of Gurney in a bizarre sexually-motivated hanging scene, with him dressed in a ballet tutu and three-corner cocked hat. James McAvoy, as his son Jack, the 14th Earl of Gurney, then inherits his title and all his estate, but the problem is that he is a paranoid schizophrenic, who thinks he is Jesus Christ and has just spent the previous seven years in a psychiatric hospital.

McAvoy is brilliant as the psychotic, deluded Jack living in his fantasy world believing he is God. He rushes around the stage dressed in a white suit with a carnation, telling his horrified family that the is “The God of Love”, and when they ask how he knows he is God, he replies “When I pray to Him, I find I’m talking to myself”. He comes across as a flower-power hippy sort of God living in a trippy, psychedelic dream where everyone loves each other, and he even sleeps on a cross, which was in the middle of the stage. He seemed to have a magnetic presence on the stage, mixing boyish charm with weird, psychotic undertones.

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The plot then focuses on his family scheming to have him sectioned so that they can take control of the family estate, but not before having him married off to the local floozy, who his uncle has had an affair with, so that he can produce an heir first. The whole thing is really surreal but very funny, in a very dark sort of way. The dialogue is crazy but very cleverly crafted too, mixing very old-fashioned, aristocratic language with weird gobble-de-gook that spurts out of McAvoy’s mouth when he is ranting psychotically, like verbal diarrhoea. At times the cast also spontaneously burst into song, singing away like they are in the middle of a pantomime. It was hilarious.

Ruling Class blog_Clare+ Shelly

Eventually, the young Jack goes from thinking he’s Jesus Christ to thinking he’s Jack the Ripper, with tragic consequences. McAvoy transforms himself from God-like and serene to the sneering, nasty, aristocratic Earl of Gurney/Jack the Ripper, who then manages to convince his family that he has become “normal” and been cured. He then takes his place in the House of Lords in a very macabre scene towards the end where the other Lords and judges there are shown as decrepit skeletons, covered in cobwebs.

Ruling Class blog_Jack The Ripper

I hadn’t heard of this play before but I found out that Peter Barnes wrote it in the 1960s. It was the era of the Profumo affair when the aristocracy and privileged elite ruled the country, with the class system being firmly entrenched. Barnes was mocking the class system and political hierarchy of the time, where the aristocracy believed they had a God-given right to rule the rest of us. I think that this has a lot of relevance to today’s society. We still live in an age where the super-rich, aristocrats and political elite class rule our society, and social inequality is greater than ever.

Ruling Class blog_McAvoy as King

The theme of the aristocratic ruling classes looking down upon the working classes is a constant theme running throughout the play. When Jack commits his first murder of Lady Claire, everyone immediately assumes that the murder was committed by his alcoholic, working class butler Daniel Tucker. Also, in an earlier scene, Jack’s uncle, Sir Charles Gurney, thinks nothing of getting his mistress with a broad Cockney accent Grace Shelley to pretend to be the Lady of the Camelias from the opera La Traviata, to con Jack into marrying her. But the artistocratic class is mocked constantly through this play too.

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I thought that all the actors played their roles brilliantly, but James McAvoy stole the show with his magnetic presence on the stage. Well done to Alex, the captioner from STAGETEXT too for captioning such bizarre, difficult dialogue. The only problem was that the caption unit was placed high above the stage so it was difficult for us to keep looking down at the stage and back up to read the captions from where we were sitting, as we were seated quite low down. Also, there was a Q&A session with some of the cast and Jamie Lloyd afterwards but I didn’t stay for this as there was no live speech-to-text reporting provided. It would be better if this could be provided next time, if they are thinking of having another Q&A session on a captioned night.

Overall though, this was a great production. I really enjoyed it, and from the reaction from my wife and friends afterwards, so did they. It was surprising, shocking, funny and deliciously dark. It’s well worth seeing, if you haven’t already!

Ruling Class blog_McAvoy + Lloyd

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Incloodu: A celebration of deaf creativity and talent

A couple of weeks ago I volunteered at the ‘Incloodu’ Deaf Arts Festival in Bethnal Green, London. I had been looking forward to this event for quite a long time and the Directors and organisers of it had been planning it for at least a year beforehand.

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Incloodu was first held at the Rich Mix arts centre in 2013, so it was in its third year. It is one of the country’s biggest events celebrating deaf and hard of hearing culture, bringing together a diverse mix of artists, musicians, dancers, actors and comedians to perform on stage and run various workshops during the day.

The idea of this festival is to bring together and showcase the incredible creative, diverse talent within the deaf and hard of hearing community. It was a free, fun family-friendly event during the day and a ticket-only event for adults in the evening. It was also intended to be fully accessible and inclusive for everyone, whether deaf, deafened, hard of hearing or hearing, as there was captioning and live speech-to-text reporting done by STAGETEXT, as well as British Sign Language (BSL) interpreting and a voiceover.

I had promised to volunteer during the day so after an early start on the Saturday morning I arrived at Rich Mix at 9am ready to receive my volunteers’ briefing for the day. The other volunteers were a great bunch of people. I already knew a few of them quite well, so it was really good to catch up with them and I made some more new friends too. That’s one of the things that I like most about volunteering. You get to meet some great new people, who you work alongside, sharing laughs and ideas with. It also helps increase your confidence and makes you feel like you have a common purpose greater than yourself, which is to help and encourage others.

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The event started at 11am so after my initial briefing and making some final preparations I met and chatted to various members of the public as they arrived, showing them to their seats in the main hall and trying to make them feel welcome.

I made some new friends there and I also bumped into some old friends, like my first sign language teacher and some people I had met previously from the deaf community. Joanna my wife arrived, along with some other deaf and hard of hearing friends, who had arranged to meet each other there. It was great to see the place really busy and buzzing with people chatting and signing away with each other. There were quite a few families there too, who seemed to be having a really good time together.

One of my favourite performances on the main stage was by Handprint Theatre. They did a brilliant series of sketches, which were acted and signed in a very visual, creative way. They started off acting as office commuters travelling to work on a packed tube train. They were all dressed in suits, acting very reserved and trying to ignore each other while trying to read a magazine article over each other’s shoulders. This was so realistic as it reminded me of what travelling to work on the tube in rush-hour is like everyday.

Then they switched to acting out a scene in the office itself, with the workers trying not to get disturbed by the noise of other people’s loud conversations on the phone while they were working and people gossiping in the office. But the best scene was where it suddenly switched to the middle of a jungle where the workers were supposed to be on a team-building event. They were all dressed in safari gear, being harassed by mosquitos swirling around them and biting them, much to their annoyance.

Incloodu blog_Handprint
(photo by Lizzie Ward-Mclaughlan)

It then finished off as they all joined in singing to Katy Perry’s song ‘Roar’, while acting out the sounds and movements of lions roaring in the jungle. You had to be there to really appreciate it, as it was a very visual and expressive performance, which I think would appeal to deaf and hearing people alike, as you didn’t need any language to appreciate the humour. I really noticed the actors’ very funny facial expressions and exaggerated body movements.

Handprint also later did a workshop with children upstairs where they were getting them involved in acting out as lions and tigers. I think it’s great for children to get involved in these things as it teaches them to be expressive and creative, while also helping to build their confidence.

I also enjoyed Deafinitely Theatre’s BSL interpreted performance of a few scenes from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. This has always been one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and the young children and teenagers associated with this company acted it in a very modern way, bringing it right up-to-date. Again, it was a very visual performance, with the signing incorporated into the acting in a very natural way.

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My other highlight was the act ‘Deaf Men Dancing’. This involved two men dancing to music on stage, but they performed in a very visually expressive way, where the focus was on their body movements and interpretation of the music. This was against the backdrop of some very slick, stylish moving images on the big screens behind them, giving the impression of elegant movement and beautiful artwork. In fact, I was very impressed with the artwork and visual images flashing up onto the big screens around the stage the whole day. It looked like a very slick production, which was complemented by STAGETEXT’s live captioning and speech-to-text reporting.

Incloodu_Deaf Men Dancing
(photo by Lizzie Ward-Mclaughlan)

Unfortunately, I didn’t stay for the evening’s entertainment as I had to be somewhere else but I understood from my friends who watched it that there was a really good mixture of comedy, music from a drum band and poetry recital by a deaf poet, amongst other things. They said they had had a really good time and didn’t get home until the early hours, so they must have enjoyed themselves.

This was a really good arts event. Well done to the Directors Mark, Ruby, Amanda and everyone involved at Incloodu, including all the fabulous volunteers and people working at Rich Mix. They all helped make it such a fun, inclusive event and a great success. I’m already looking forward to next year’s Incloodu!

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(photo by Amanda-Jane Richards)