Thursday, 14 August 2014

My dull deaf ears a little use to hear…

Season your admiration for a while
With an attent ear, till I may deliver,
Upon the witness of these gentlemen,
This marvel to you.
– William Shakespeare: Hamlet

As my deafness worsened over the years, I started to avoid the theatre-, opera- and concert-going that had filled so much of my life with joy. Music can still be a bit of a struggle, live, even with the best audiological marvels – especially if I am not familiar with the works being performed (although I will sometimes take my iPad with me: pre-loaded with the orchestral scores to follow…) – as, accompanying the loss of acuity, is a variable alteration of pitch (a form of diplacusis): where instruments that produce a plethora of harmonics (particularly string instruments; and, even worse, my own instrument, the piano) can result in conflicting timbres that may render even my favourites, such as Brahms and Elgar, akin to modern dissonance.

Where technology has come to my aid, though, is at the RSC. (In fact, the building, the productions, the facilities, the staff, have all brought a great deal of pleasure into my life, and continue to do so – as my addiction to the theatre is re-ignited….) As you lose your hearing, you soon realize that, behind all the signs indicating that hearing loops have been installed, usually lies nothing but utter disappointment. Not only are these systems often set up incorrectly; but the majority are either then poorly maintained or forgotten and inactive.

However, wherever you sit at the RSC – in both the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Swan (as well as at the ticket desk, etc.) – the induction loops provide clear sound: even when an actor delivering their lines has their back to you (because of the placement of the microphones). There is also no noticeable lag between live and sampled sound – something I discovered when I had my latest hearing aids programmed to be able to access both sources at once. This is now my preferred way of watching: as it gives more ‘presence’ and depth to the action (akin to the difference between monaural and binaural sound; or black-and-white and colour television); and my untrained lip-reading isn’t good enough to keep up with torrents of Jacobethan iambs!

The RSC also offer a couple of captioned performances for each production (as well as audio-described ones, and ‘touch tours’, for the visually impaired); and, when booking your seat, the ticket office – always immensely helpful and patient in matters of accessibility – will do their very best to find you a place where the captions are easily read, without impeding your view of the play. (As I am also physically disabled, they have on record that I am what my grandad would call an ‘okkerd bugga’ and prefer a seat at the left-hand end of a row!) In a week where “British tourist venues are being urged to provide better access for disabled visitors”, the RSC can be seen leading the way – with such access made an integral part of the transformation the theatre underwent a few years ago: not only designed into the building, but in the staff’s training and customer-facing ethos.

Returning to see The Two Gentlemen of Verona, this afternoon: instead of my usual seat in the stalls, I was upstairs in the circle (in another full house) – all the better to see the ‘surtitles’ on the balcony opposite. And I must admit, these added greatly to the enjoyment of the production: especially with some of the more laboured of Shakespeare’s youthful punning; or where the dialogue came thick and fast, with overlapping voices – and where, therefore, I had missed some of the subtlety, before. I had to be careful, though, not to get fixated on them. However, after years of practice with television subtitles – which the theatre captions were infinitely superior in accuracy to, of course…! – I soon adapted, and developed a knack for keeping them in the corner of my eye, whilst watching the action below.

Although, at one point, I realized that – as in previous visits – I did not actually need them to fully experience the drama, I know that I will return for other captioned performances: as they are that touch of seasoning that renders a tasty dish even more toothsome!

Cast photograph by Simon Annand/RSC

On second viewing, some of the threads and leitmotifs that Shakespeare weaves into the play become more apparent – the repeat tearing up of delivered love-letters, for example; and the riffs on what love means… – and I now believe that it deserves as much praise as some of his later work. It may not have as satisfying a conclusion as many of the more famous plays; but the exploration of human (particularly male) fallibility, desire, and (eventual) forgiveness – weaving together all the trademark strands of humour and emotion – is accomplished with ease; and demonstrates how well young Will understood the demands of his audience (even those whose hearing is fading…).

Postscript: 11 September 2014
Attending an ‘open set changeover’ at the Swan Theatre – from The White Devil to The Roaring Girl – the guide (who was wonderful, by the way!) must have noticed either my hearing aids or my not-too-subtle international deaf symbol badge: because she ensured that I sat next to her, throughout her commentary, so that I could hear everything she said. (It was also nice that the other tour members left me a seat free, of course, as a result of her pronouncement!)

The crew of ten or so stage-hands (plus the rarely visible lighting and sound technicians, and immensely thorough cleaners) transformed the theatre easily and efficiently in the allotted time (of ninety minutes): making it look oh-so-very-simple – a tribute both to their sometimes mute teamwork and the skill of the set-designers and craftsmen who built what appear to be complex designs: but which can be assembled and disassembled almost easier than an IKEA flatpack (and without any instructions, either)! Very impressive; and yet another sign of the quality and thought that can (and should?) remain invisible to the audience, and yet which we expect and take for granted.

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