Ballet & The Bard

Peregrine, the white Shetland pony, surrounded by audience members on the pavement outside the Sadler's Wells theatre.

Over the past fortnight I’ve been to a couple of theatre shows that in the past I wouldn’t have considered going to – a Shakespeare play and a ballet. Both types of production can potentially be quite hard to follow if you’re new to them, even more so if you’re visually impaired. So I was curious about them, but I didn’t know if I would like them. And I didn’t fancy going to anything that was a heavy drama or a tragedy.

However, my friend Claire spotted a couple of light comedies that had touch tours and audio description available – Much Ado About Nothing and La Fille Mal Gardée (The Wayward Daughter). So they were very intriguing. And having the extra accessibility really appealed to me, as I always find it very useful. Being able to closely examine and feel the costumes, props and scenery on a touch tour, combined with the audio description during the performance, ensures that I can fully understand and enjoy what’s happening just like everyone else, as I can feel confident I’m not missing anything important. It’s always greatly appreciated when people put aside their time for us in this way.

So I went to both shows, as they looked quite fun, and here I’m going to review and compare my experiences. I hope you enjoy reading about them.

Much Ado About Nothing

This Shakespeare play was on at the Watford Palace Theatre, with the touch tour and audio description provided by VocalEyes. And for the tour we were very privileged to be joined on stage by quite a few members of the all-female cast, along with some members of the stage crew, all of whom were very friendly and keen to chat to us. Being able to interact with so many people, especially the stars of the show, made the experience feel really special as well as informative.

The stage for Much Ado About Nothing, designed to look like a bombed out theatre from the 1940s, with a huge hole in the back wall left behind by a bomb. Torn remnants of green and red fabric hang in the air above it. 2 rectangular pillars on the left of the stage have a few war posters on them, while on the right a spiralling staircase leads up to a balcony.
Photo by Claire Amoroso

This version of the play was set in the 1940s during the Battle of Britain, with the stage looking like a bombed out theatre. So we got to see and feel things like an RAF uniform, a Home Guard outfit and a blackout lantern, and there were a few nods to the classic sitcom Dad’s Army, including a stripy scarf like the one Pike wore. There were also animal costumes that were used in a party scene, such as a lion’s mask and a hat with real deer antlers sticking out of it, and we saw a lovely red party dress and a wedding dress with a veil. And there were props like a white iron garden seat and hemp rope from an upper balcony that we were able to take a close look at. So it was a very useful and enjoyable tour.

The play itself was very good too. It did take me a short while to really get into the Shakespearean style of language, not being used to it. But there was a point where it just seemed to click into place in my head and from there I found it easier to follow, as I understood who each character was and the relationships between them.

I can’t claim to have understood every single word that was said throughout the play, as some of it still went over my head a little bit I think. But I comprehended more than enough to be able to follow and enjoy the story, which is what mattered. The acting was very good, with the all-female cast doing a great job at portraying the men’s roles as well as those of the ladies. There were also plenty of humorous moments, and the 1940s setting worked nicely.

View of the left side of the stage for Much Ado About nothing, showing the 2 tall square pillars. As the set resembles a bombed out theatre from World War 2, the pillars are damaged, with a lot of the white paintwork stripped away revealing the bricks underneath. On the bottom third of the pillar, where most of the white paint remains, various posters from the war are attached.
Photo by Claire Amoroso

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to use the audio description, because there was a lot of static interference on the headsets and they weren’t able to fix it at the time. So it was fortunate that we got to see so much on the touch tour, and were able to use our monoculars (our small telescopes) to look at things if we needed to during the show. The characters’ dialogue also helped to clarify what was happening or how people were feeling sometimes.

So I don’t think I missed too much, and I was still able to follow all the key aspects of the play. I also know the theatre are looking at ways of improving their system for audio description – which to be fair has worked well there in the past, including when I saw Dishoom! last month. So hopefully they can make it more reliable as time goes on.

And overall I really enjoyed the play, as well as the touch tour beforehand. It was a very nice introduction to the world of Shakespearean theatre, and I can recommend it for anyone wanting to try out one of his plays.

La Fille Mal Gardée (The Wayward Daughter)

This show by Birmingham Royal Ballet was being performed at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, with the touch tour and audio description arranged in-house. And their touch tour was amazing, lasting nearly 2 hours! We didn’t get to meet the cast on this occasion, quite understandably given how intensely focused they need to be. But there was still a lot involved, far more than any other touch tour I’ve attended so far.

Poster for La Fille Mal Gardée, showing the 3 central characters in a corn field. The handsome man on the left has tight yellow trousers, a black jacket over a shirt with white sleeves, and a pink ribbon tied around his neck. He is looking lovingly at the young lady sitting on a barrel in the centre, whose dress has a flowing white skirt with a blue layer of fabric on top and a black chest section with criss-crossing blue fabric up the centre. To her right, her stern looking mother is wearing a large green and red chequered dress with decorative white edging at the hem and shoulders, and is holding a grey hat.

We started off with a thorough exploration of the large stage area, looking at many of the set pieces and props, including fake vegetables, sheaths of corn, giant sunflowers, a butter churn, items of furniture, a set of steps leading up to daughter Lise’s bedroom, and a maypole with long colourful ribbons that the villagers dance around.

We also got to examine a cart that gets pulled by a pony a few times during the show – and I mean a real Shetland pony! Later on, just before and after the show, Peregrine the pony was outside the theatre with his handler for the whole audience to meet him. And he was absolutely adorable! He was so calm, not at all bothered by everyone coming up to say hello and stroke him.

The white pony being stroked by an audience member on the pavement outside the theatre.

After the stage tour, our group was taken to a rehearsal studio upstairs, where we had a great session examining the various costumes, from beautiful dresses for the ladies and smart attire for the men, to clogs and ballet shoes. and also the chicken costumes. Yes, this ballet has dancing chickens! All of the outfits were very colourful and lovely to feel, and they gave us a very useful sense of what each character was like.

And then to finish we had a very interesting Q&A session with conductor Paul Murphy. We discussed the importance of his role as the vital middleman between the orchestra and the dancers, and the intricate connections between music and dance, along with an insight into some of his other work and experience. So it was fascinating to talk to him.

As for the show itself, I think I had been more unsure about going to this one than the Shakespeare play. But I really enjoyed it, with its wonderful music, brilliant choreography, lots of funny moments and delightfully colourful sets. It’s a very uplifting and cheerful production, you can’t help but smile after watching it.

It’s a very sweet and simple love story ultimately, but it brings out many fun dance routines including the show’s famous clog dance and a maypole dance, among many others. They’re all done with fluidity and precision, and it really looks like everyone is enjoying themselves. The dancing chickens did a nice job as well, and even when a character has to dance awkwardly or badly, that actually takes a lot of skill by the actor to do effectively. And of course Peregrine the pony drew all eyes to him whenever he walked on!

We had audio description for this show as well – which is all the more vital for a ballet given that there’s no dialogue, so you’re purely reliant on the visuals to understand the story. And for me personally, it worked well. It briefly cut out occasionally, but the vast majority of the time it was fine. And it was extremely useful, indeed essential. Without it, I’d have been very lost. Although I could see the dancing to some extent, and I could look at individual performers more closely with my monocular if I wanted to, there is still a lot to concentrate on and it’s very easy to miss things in a production of this nature. So I was heavily reliant on the description to fully immerse myself in the show and enjoy it.

Others in the group had more trouble though, with the headsets cutting out regularly. Claire had to keep turning her head in different direction to try and get a signal, and swapping my headset and seat with her didn’t help. Perhaps my height was giving me some advantage, but I don’t know.

In any case, the staff member looking after us, Emma, was really kind to us and very apologetic, and did her very best to try and get it fixed with the technical team, but they couldn’t pinpoint the issue. So it made the show more difficult to watch for Claire and others – which was unexpected, as some of them have been to that theatre before and the headsets have worked fine. So hopefully they can work things out for their future audio described shows, as it is a lovely venue to go to.

But as I say, I didn’t have any major problems, thankfully. And as a result, I’m happy to say I enjoyed my very first ballet. It was colourful and fun, and some of the music and visuals did get stuck in my head afterwards, so I got the outcome I had hoped for.

Conclusion

All in all, I’m very glad I gave both shows a chance, I liked them very much. Sure, I wouldn’t go and see productions like that on a frequent basis, as I prefer other types of theatre more, especially musicals, comedies and fantasy plays. But I would be more open to seeing this type of thing occasionally in the future now I know what to expect.

Hopefully the theatres will be able to improve their audio description provision going forward, and can acquire the necessary funding if necessary, which I appreciate isn’t easy to get. For most of the shows I’ve been to over the past couple of years, the audio description has worked nicely, But in turn that does mean you miss it all the more when it’s not there, because it really does make a big difference.

Touch tours are also a key piece of the accessibility jigsaw though, because they give you an important frame of reference, enabling you to picture things and appreciate them all the more clearly in your head. So I love doing those tours, and these two were among the very best I’ve had. Being able to meet the cast for Much Ado About Nothing, and to get such an extensive tour and Q&A session for La Fille Mal Gardée, was brilliant. Big thanks to everyone who gave up their time for that.

And that’s it. Although there were some technical issues, I had a lovely time at both of these shows overall. If you want to check out what audio described shows are coming up, I suggest you keep an eye on the websites for Vocaleyes (who cover the UK), Official London Theatre (includes in-house descriptions by theatres themselves as well as some VocalEyes productions) and Minds Eye (who work outside London). Some theatres also have their own access listings, such as Sadler’s Wells in this case. Getting their email newsletters and following them on social media is a good idea as well.

As for me, I already have more audio described shows lined up in the next few weeks and into the new year, which I’m really looking forward to. And I will of course let you know how I get on. Thanks for reading!

Author: Glen

Love London, love a laugh, love life. Visually impaired blogger & Youtuber with aniridia & nystagmus, posting about my experiences & adventures.

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