February’s highlights: Access to the arts in action

Access in Action blog_Trafalgar set

I’ve been to see some great plays and art exhibitions this month, which have proved to me once again how important great access to theatre and the arts is to deaf and disabled people.

At the beginning of February I saw a performance of Jamie Lloyd’s production of The Homecoming, which was captioned by STAGETEXT at the Trafalgar Studios in London. This is a Harold Pinter play and while I found the actual play pretty weird and disturbing (which I think it’s meant to be as it’s supposed to be shocking and thought-provoking), the access provided by the captioning was excellent.

We were seated close to the action on stage and I could read the captions really clearly as the caption unit was placed directly above the stage. I didn’t have to keep moving my head from side to side or up and down like watching tennis at Wimbledon to read the text and follow the action at the same time.

This is one of my favourite places to watch a play. The tickets are only £15 each on a Monday night, so it makes it accessible and inclusive to all. The audience is also quite diverse, with young and older people alike all sitting together in a cosy, informal atmosphere. There’s no elitism about the place. It was packed and everyone looked like they were having a good time.

It was a shame that the hearing loop didn’t work, even after I swapped it for another one during the interval. But it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the performance in any way as I could still hear most of it and I could read the captions very well from where I was sitting.

My experience of watching Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the National Theatre about a week later was completely different, though. This was also captioned by STAGETEXT. When I first took my seat, I saw that there was a very elaborate stage set, designed like a large modern office, complete with desks, chairs and computers.

Access in Action blog_National office set

Two caption units were placed to the far left and right of the stage, instead of above the stage. At first, I wondered why they had been put there because it made it quite difficult to follow the captions and the action on stage at the same time when I had to keep moving my head from the caption units at the sides to the stage where the actors were.

It all became clear after a while though when suddenly, the whole set, complete with upside down chairs and tables was lifted and suspended in the air above the stage. The chairs and tables, which were hanging from the ceiling, had been transformed into a forest and they were now meant to be trees. The rest of the action took place in this atmospheric, misty half office/forest setting.

The effect it gave was really creative and different. I’d never seen office furniture transformed into a forest before, but it seemed to work somehow. From an access point of view though, it wasn’t ideal as although I could see how it would be impossible to have put the caption units above the stage with such an elaborate set, it meant that anyone relying on the captions would either have to follow the captions or watch the action on-stage, as it was impossible to do both at the same time.

Access in Action blog_Forest

Thankfully, the hearing loop was crystal clear, so I still managed to follow the dialogue and enjoy the play. The acting was brilliant, the plot really funny and the set design amazing. I also think that putting it in such a modern setting with the actors dressed in modern clothes made Shakespeare seem much more accessible and relevant to today’s audiences.

It made me wonder, though, whether theatre set designers should incorporate decisions about access right from the start when they are planning their sets. Later, I asked STAGETEXT about this and they told me that it can be difficult to find the perfect placement for the caption units across a range of different venues and complex sets. They said that their Theatre Programme Manager works directly with venues to ensure that the units are as close to the action as possible. But with theatres that have their own captioning equipment, they have less of a say where the units are positioned than they do if they are captioning it themselves.

Also, with some of the West End shows, STAGETEXT has to mark out an allocation of caption user seats as soon as the dates go on sale and this is often before there is even a set design in place for the production. This explains why sometimes the caption units are not in the ideal position for the caption users. I have to say though, that the majority of times I’ve seen a captioned performance, the experience has been excellent and fully accessible to me.

The access was really good at the exhibition I went to with my wife yesterday at the National Gallery too: http://bit.ly/1P9yDQw. It was a major exhibition of the early 19th Century French artist Delacroix’s paintings, whose work inspired the younger Impressionists and modern artists who came after him.

Access in Action blog_Delacroix National Gallery

I asked for a hearing loop for the recorded audio guide of the exhibition. The staff there were really helpful and made sure that the loop worked before I went into the exhibition. It was crystal clear and easy to use.

I didn’t really know much about Delacroix before or how important an artist and influence he was. The exhibition describes him as ‘The Father of Modern Art’ with a quote from Cézanne saying “We all paint in Delacroix’s language”. In the exhibition we saw original paintings by Delacroix alongside others by such famous artists as Van Gogh, Gauguin, Renoir, Monet and Cézanne, who had all been inspired by his works.

Access in Action blog_Van Gogh flowers

What I love about these Delacroix paintings is that they are very colourful and it’s obvious that he painted them with a lot of passion and energy. He was one of the first artists to unleash his imagination and express on canvas the powerful emotions and ferocious intensity that were building up inside him like a volcano, whether it was in a still life painting, landscape, portrait, historical battle or religious scene.

I really loved his North African paintings in the exhibition, which showed scenes of rich luxuriant landscapes and architecture, bright colours, brilliant sunlight and exotic animals such as lions and tigers. These were all new and fascinating to a man such as him coming from Paris. The Delacroix exhibition is on until 22nd May so if you haven’t seen it yet, I would highly recommend you go and check it out!

Access in Action blog_Delacroix lion

 

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

Ruling Class blog_header

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.

Ruling Class blog_Macbeth

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.

Ruling Class blog_JC

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.

Ruling Class blog_butler

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

Accessibility at Trafalgar Studios: Insanity at the Hothouse

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Last night I went to see a performance of ‘The Hothouse’ at the Trafalgar Studios in London with my wife Joanna, which had live captioning by STAGETEXT.

I found out that this play was going to be on a while ago, and I really wanted to see it. However, I saw that there wasn’t going to be a captioned performance of it, so I was really disappointed. I contacted STAGETEXT and told them, and they gave me the contact details of Laura, the Deputy Theatre Manager of the Trafalgar Studios. I contacted her to ask if they could put on a captioned performance. I told her how much I had really enjoyed seeing ‘Macbeth’ there a few months earlier by the same director Jamie Lloyd. To my great delight, she e-mailed me back recently to tell me that there would now be a captioned performance by STAGETEXT, so I booked two tickets straightaway.

I think that if you really want to see a particular play but you feel you can’t because you feel it’s not accessible to you, it’s definitely worth contacting the theatre directly and telling them. It’s only through letting them know that you want to see it that theatres around the country will take notice and make more of their performances accessible to other deaf/deafened and hard of hearing people like me.

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Before the performance, Joanna and I met Laura from Trafalgar Studios and had a chat at the bar. She was really friendly and welcoming. I thanked her for putting on the captioned performance and I told her that I really loved the Trafalgar Studios as it is cosy and intimate and lends itself to captioned performances brilliantly. She explained that they really wanted to make their theatres accessible to all, regardless of peoples’ hearing loss, visual impairment or other disabilities. She said that they want people to tell them if they have access problems so they can make their performances more accessible. She also said that they have ‘access champions’ to help promote greater accessibility and inclusion within all their theatres, which I thought was great.

Once inside the theatre, it was packed. We had really good seats in the middle and I could see the captioning unit clearly, which was above the stage.

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The play was written by Harold Pinter in the 1950s and is set in an unnamed state institution, referred to as a ‘rest home’, which is really a psychiatric unit. The patients have numbers instead of names and they are routinely abused and tortured by electronic shock treatments in appalling acts of cruelty and brutality. Despite this, the play is a very zany black comedy with constant moments of hilarity, and acting which reminded me of Monty Python or John Cleese in Fawlty Towers. The witty dialogue was so quick that at first I found it hard to keep up with the captioning, but I soon got used to it.

We met Alex, the captioner, during the interval and I told her that it must have been really difficult for her to keep up with the unbelievably quick dialogue, which was like a machine gun, but she was doing an amazing job.

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I thought the actors were brilliant, particularly since they were playing such neurotic, unhinged characters. Simon Russell Beale who played the main character Roote, the deranged ex-Colonel and tyrant who ran the institution, was superb. He seemed to become more psychotic and deluded as the story unfolded, while in contrast John Simm, who played his sidekick Gibbs, appeared cold, creepy and sinister.

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The supporting actors were equally brilliant. John Heffernan, who played the role of the cheeky, taunting subordinate Lush in his purple suit, was absolutely hilarious and reminded me of a sly Kenneth Williams. I couldn’t stop laughing in the scene where he was madly stuffing half a Christmas cake into his mouth after drinking copious amounts of whisky with Roote. This was one of the best scenes in the play.

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Behind all this mad farcical black humour, Pinter was trying to show that state-sanctioned torture and cruelty are inherently wrong and he was highlighting the dangers of uncontrolled authority, which is bound to come to a bitter end. He explained in an interview in 1982 that it was fantasy when he wrote it, but that it had become far more relevant as reality had overtaken it. It therefore has a deeply moral message.

The first captioned performance I saw since I lost my hearing was Macbeth at the Trafalgar Studios earlier this year. I was blown away by that experience. This is what encouraged me to go back to the theatre, as before, I wouldn’t have considered it as I thought it was no longer accessible to me. It is really great to go out and see these amazing plays. Trafalgar Studios is my favourite place to see plays in London. It is really unique as it is so intimate that you actually feel part of the action. It reminds me of another one of my passions, watching football, at an old smaller stadium such as West Ham’s Upton Park or Fulham’s Cottage, where you feel part of the game and the atmosphere is electric as you are so close to the players. This is totally different to the atmosphere in new big state-of-the art stadiums, where you feel like you are in a church.

I would recommend anyone to go and see a play at the brilliant Trafalgar Studios. I’m already looking forward to the next accessible play!