If you live in the UK like me, you’ll be well aware that we’re getting another blast of winter from the weather gods right now, including some snow. Which is lovely to look at if you don’t have to go travelling in it – yay to being a homeworker! – but on the whole I think we’re all looking forward to spring and some warmer weather more than ever.
But as we’re still in the winter season at the moment, it felt like a very appropriate time to go and see a play called Winter by Jon Fosse, which was on at the Young Vic theatre from the 14th-24th February. Granted, it’s got nothing to do with the weather, but the title and timing is appropriate. And it is quite an unusual play compared to the ones I’ve attended so far. So I wanted to tell you a bit about my experience.
Before I do, there are a couple of important points to note for transparency:
- I was among a few visually impaired bloggers very kindly offered complimentary tickets by the theatre to see the show, as they were extending their accessibility services for this production and wanted our feedback. However, all ramblings and opinions here are my own, the theatre have had no input into this post.
- This is a spoiler-free review. Although the play’s run at the Young Vic has finished, it will appear in other venues, just it has done in the past. So there’s a chance other people interested in the show will find this post, and I don’t want to ruin anything!
Now that’s sorted, let me tell you how things went last Friday. I hope you enjoy reading about it.
There are many theatres I’ve not yet been to in London, the Young Vic being one of them. And I didn’t think I’d heard of it until I was contacted – the Old Vic I was aware of, but not the Young one. However, their Wikipedia article reminds me that The Who performed a number of concerts there in 1971, in preparation for their Who’s Next album. I wasn’t alive for those, of course, but one of the concerts is included on the deluxe edition of that album, which I do have in my music collection. And very good it is too. It just hadn’t clicked in my head that the Young Vic was the same place, having not listened to the album for a little while. So that’s pretty cool. And let’s face it, if The Who like the place, it must be good, right? They’ve had a lot of big name actors there over the years too, so it’s clearly a very popular and successful establishment.
It was very easy for me to get there as well, as it’s just down the street from Southwark Tube Station. You come out of the main entrance of the station, follow the pavement around to the right, then it’s just a few minutes walk down the street, on your right. You can’t miss it.
And it’s a nice little building. The box office desk is straight in front of you as you walk in, with the bar and dining area on your left. And there are actually 3 theatre spaces within the building – the big main auditorium, and then 2 smaller studio spaces (called Maria and Clare). Those smaller studios have unreserved seating, so you can pick whichever seat you like when you enter. All 3 rooms can be configured in a myriad of ways depending on the production taking place, so it’s very flexible.
Winter was in the Clare studio, the smallest one. And before the show, I got to go inside for a touch tour. Initially it looked like it was going to be just me, but a couple of other people did join us as well. I don’t know if they were also bloggers or not, we didn’t get a chance to chat. But we had a nice time.
Before I explain what happened, let me first put things into context, as this is a good opportunity to explain the complimentary ticket.
Touch Tours & Audio Description
If you’re new to my corner of the web and don’t know what I’m talking about, then let me quickly explain. A touch tour basically means that you can go on to the stage and get close-up with the set, costumes, props, etc, with helpful description and guidance from people working on the show, including one or two of the actors if you’re very lucky. And then during the show, audio description is delivered through a headset, describing what characters are wearing, what they’re doing, the gestures and facial expressions they’re making, and so on – anything that’s useful to follow, understand and enjoy the story.
Touch tours and audio description really enhance the experience for visually impaired audience members like myself. They allow us to understand how the set is laid out, what the props and costumes are like, what the characters are like, etc, and they ensure we don’t miss any important details of the story. We’re then able to form a much more complete picture in our minds of what’s going on, so we can enjoy the play on an equal level with everybody else. Just because you can’t see doesn’t mean you can’t attend the theatre. Many of us still love a good play or musical just as much as anyone else. We just need a little bit of assistance to help us understand everything that’s happening.
For me, although I can see, it is only to a restricted extent. so I always find that the tour and description adds crucial details that I would otherwise have missed. Not knowing those details would make the plays harder to understand and thus less enjoyable. And for people who can’t see at all, being able to get hands-on with the set and then hear audio description is even more critical.
However, in order to have a touch tour and audio description (and likewise for captioning if you have hearing loss), you generally have to go on a specific date, because it’s often only provided for one performance in the run, or for 1 performance a year if it’s a long-running show. A few productions give you a bit more choice – Harry Potter & The Cursed Child is offering it for 3 performances this year for instance, while Matilda is offering it for 4 performances. But generally you’re lucky if it’s more than one.
The best places to look for audio described performances are VocalEyes, who provide audio describers for many shows across the UK, while the Official London Theatre Access site lists many accessible shows in the capital, including audio described, captioned, signed and autism-friendly performances. The websites for individual theatres will also have details of accessible performances they provide of course.
Last year, the one major exception I came across was the Ian Dury musical Reasons To Be Cheerful in Stratford, where they built audio description and captioning into every single performance, making them an integral part of the production rather than an extra added on top. So that was very unique, and it was great that they did it for every single show.
And now this year there’s been another notable and welcome exception.
Access For All
The Young Vic are already committed to providing access for all, to ensure that every audience member is able to attend and enjoy the shows that they provide. This includes touch tours, audio description, captioning, amplification, relaxed performance, safe space performances, and guide dogs are welcome. So that’s wonderful.
Like most other theatres, they’ve also provided audio description and captioning for just one performance of each show as far as I’m aware, and are doing so for the next few productions on their list as well.
But for Winter they wanted to step things up significantly, by providing audio description for every performance (10 evenings and 2 matinees), plus touch tours on 6 of those occasions. This was an experiment for them to see how it went – and that’s why they reached out to bloggers like myself to come along and try it out, which was very kind of them. The fact that they’re keen to try and extend their accessibility provision is to be applauded, given the extra time, funding and effort that must be involved in doing so. And it appears their efforts were very successful too.
On top of that, the female character in the show is blind, and played by visually impaired actress Maisie Greenwood. Her profile page even includes a short training film about visual impairment presented by her. And the play’s director, John R Wilkinson, is a wheelchair user. So it’s great to see disability representation in this production. The only other actor in the play is Jonathan Cullen, who isn’t disabled to my knowledge, but he has appeared widely in many stage, film and TV productions, so he’s very well established.
So let’s get on to my experience, firstly in terms of the touch tour and audio description before I review the play itself.
The touch tour involved quite a few people – not just theatre staff, but also a few people who were directly involved in staging the play, and also the two actors themselves. Everyone’s time was very much appreciated, especially the actors, as you don’t always get to meet the stars of the show during tours like this, given that they need time to prepare. So we were very privileged.
You can listen to an audio described introduction to the play, which gives a wonderful setup to the show for those who can’t see. But essentially, the small room was designed so that the narrow stage spanned the centre of the space, with the audience sitting on each side of it. And the stage design was very minimalist in style, but with notably contrasting elements. For instance, the floor appeared to be a single grey colour, but was actually one half gravel and one half carpet, while the end walls were made of vertically slatted wood, giving a striped light and dark appearance. There are a couple of hidden set pieces that folded down from the walls as well, which was a nice touch.
It was great to be able to get on stage and see all of that for myself. Feeling the different surfaces underfoot and finding the threshold between them was particularly useful, as it’s critical in understanding where the characters are in the space during the performance. And by talking to the people who were describing the space, I was able to understand not just how the space was designed, but also why it was designed in that way, as it’s very much in keeping with the story and the characters. The context matters just as much as the tangible reality of the space.
I then got to inspect and feel the character’s costumes, again with clear descriptions as to their design and the thinking behind them. The outfits had been placed on mannequins on the stage, and the actors were there to talk to us about them. So that was really wonderful, because obviously they know their characters intimately, and they were very friendly and helpful. Talking to them really helped me to get a good sense of what the costumes represented, and I came away with a clear understanding of just how different the characters are to each other.
They didn’t give any spoilers away of course, they just told us enough to give us the context that we needed and wouldn’t have had otherwise. Although I was able to sit close to the stage for the show, my distance vision wasn’t good enough to see their costumes in detail, so getting close-up to them beforehand made a huge difference. Sure, the costumes are noted in the audio description as well, as the audio introduction above is repeated before the show, and that is very useful. But even so, the picture you paint in your mind from that is still no substitute for being able to see and feel the clothing itself. It’s ultimately the combination of getting hands on and hearing the description that really helps to make things as clear as possible.
So the touch tour was great, laying important foundations that really helped me to understand and appreciate everything that went on in the play itself. And the audio description during the show also complemented the production nicely, again drawing my attention to vital elements that I would otherwise have been oblivious to. The headset was a very simple device – just one complete unit with headphones that sit in your ears, connected directly to a unit that sits under your chin, so there were no wires. It worked fine, the volume control was easy to feel and use, it was comfortable to wear, and the describer’s voice was very clear.
Winter is written by Norwegian dramatist Jon Fosse, and the English translation is by Ann Henning Jocelyn. It’s a quiet and reflective piece, just an hour long with no interval, and starring just 2 characters, here played by Maisie Greenwood and Jonathan Cullen, under the direction of John R Wilkinson. The basic description says – “An ordinary businessman meets a volatile stranger in a park. So begins a fugue of splintered desires and mistaken meanings.”
I wouldn’t ordinarily have been drawn in by a description like that, I must admit. It doesn’t strike me as being my sort of play necessarily. But with the offer of a complimentary ticket, I had nothing to lose by going. And I am really enjoying trying different and unusual things in London, so this was another perfect excuse to give something new a go.
Fosse’s plays are very successful worldwide, although not always in England apparently. And there are some mixed reviews of Winter out there, with some people finding it slow and boring. So it might not be to everyone’s taste perhaps. But if you’ve never been to a play like this, I do think it’s well worth a go, as it’s very interesting and thought-provoking, and contains themes we can all relate to. I liked it more than I expected to be fair, so I’m personally very glad I went.
It is a slow-paced production, but that’s important given the journey taken by the characters. They are two very different personalities, completely at odds with one another, hence the contrasts in the design of the stage I mentioned earlier. And yet their random encounter leads to them forming a connection – and I’m deliberately using that word instead of something like ‘relationship’, in my opinion at least.
During the play we gradually see this connection develop, at a natural pace. We share their journey as we try to make sense of each character, just as they’re trying to make sense of each other. They don’t know anything about each other, and we don’t know anything about them – not their backstories, and not even their names. But they do both have vulnerabilities, as becomes apparent as the story progresses.
The most important aspect of the play, however, isn’t the dialogue between them, plentiful and important though it is. Rather, our consideration is often drawn to what they’re not saying, because it’s that which is ultimately driving the story forward, or so it felt to me. I’m sure we’ve all been in situations where we feel unable to say what we really mean for whatever reason, instead trying to find other ways to get our message across, and assess if the other person might agree. This play explores that kind of theme very well, and the consequences that may result from not being as clear as one could or should be.
As such, the lives of both characters are changed by the end, but whether it’s for better or for worse isn’t clear. You could viably argue it both ways depending on your thought processes, and that’s the point. The characters and their journey are left open to interpretation, and in a good way. This isn’t a piece about certainties or definitive rights and wrongs, and it doesn’t provide a concrete happy or sad ending. It’s designed to make you think, and doesn’t tell you what to think. It’s written very well in that respect – telling a clear and intriguing story, and leaving you with plenty to consider afterwards. Your interpretation and understanding of the play may differ to mine, and that’s great, because it’s designed that way.
All in all, I really enjoyed the evening. Winter is a really well written and thoughtful production, and was acted really well. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but that’s the same for any play. And if you’ve never seen a play of this nature, I do recommend trying it before making any judgements. The touch tour and audio description also enhanced the experience for me greatly, and it’s awesome that they provided it for every performance. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to make so much sense of what was happening, and therefore wouldn’t have been able to appreciate and enjoy it as much as everyone else. And the staff at the theatre were very friendly and helpful, so my thanks to them for giving me the opportunity to see the production, and for making it so accessible.
Do check out the Young Vic if you enjoy theatre, because they put on a wide variety of productions in all sorts of genres and styles, so it’s not just quiet plays like Winter. Go to their What’s On page to see what’s coming up, and the archive of their past productions, and you’ll get a good sense of the sort of things they do. And don’t forget to look at their Access For All page to find out more about their accessible performances. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on them to see what else catches my attention in the future.