Audio description and Shakespeare

VocalEyes is a regular describer of plays at Shakespeare’s Globe and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. We invited David Bellwood, Access Manager at Shakespeare’s Globe, to share his thoughts about audio description and Shakespeare.

There’s a notion (supported by common parlance) that audiences go to ‘see’ a play. The notion establishes a contradictory opposition in itself:  an audience is literally a group who primarily listens. In Elizabethan times, it was more common of a person to say that she ‘heard’ a play, rather than ‘saw’ one. The linguistic shift is an important one in understanding how plays are made today, and how we at the Globe (which is a historically informed reconstruction) are in a position to explore a balance between sight and sound instead of giving primacy to one or the other.

Early modern playwriting is replete with detailed, textual world-building and scenes described aloud in ways that modern, more realistic plays seldom attempt to emulate. The agreed wisdom is that modern writers can be more realistic in the dialogue they employ because they don’t need to describe the scene. With modern set designs, lighting, projection design and costuming, it is presumed that the audience will see all the information they need. To me, this suggests an idea that there was something lacking, that description was only necessary when the visual element couldn’t pass muster. This suggests that the Elizabethan stage was void of any scenery, costume or even gesture, which we know to be untrue. What is exciting (to me, at least) about the early modern mode of playwriting is not that it is verbose due to mechanical insufficiencies, but that it is stylised in a way that embraces the variety of human being present in the audience.

There is still a clear need for audio description with Shakespeare’s plays, with the traffic of the stage being inaccessible to many blind and visually impaired audience members, but there are some clear sympathies between Shakespeare’s writing and audio description. I am not going to say that Shakespeare wrote with a visually impaired audience in mind, but he is aware of how blind people were aided or restricted in society, and this awareness shows itself in a spectrum of representation, from the mocked Old Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice to the sympathetic character of Gloucester in King Lear.

In the relationship between script and audio description, King Lear presents us with one of the most fascinating scenes.  Gloucester, a nobleman out of favour with the old king’s daughters, is assaulted and his eyes are gouged out. Now blind, he comes across his own son, who is disguised.  Edgar, masquerading as Mad Tom, becomes Gloucester’s guide in the world, and takes him to Dover as requested. Gloucester asks if they have arrived, to which Edgar says they have, placing both them and the audience on the cliffs of Dover. Without the requisite scenery, the audience have to wait for a character to state his location to create that location.

Earl of Gloucester. When shall I come to th’ top of that same hill?

Edgar. You do climb up it now. Look how we labour.

Earl of Gloucester. Methinks the ground is even.

Edgar. Horrible steep.
Hark, do you hear the sea?

Earl of Gloucester. No, truly.

The audience, however, may be at a loss. The stage is (presumably) even, and there will be no sound of the sea. Gloucester’s senses are true yet he creates a world around him from the information his son gives him.

Edgar. Come on, sir; here’s the place. Stand still. How fearful
And dizzy ’tis to cast one’s eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles. Halfway down
Hangs one that gathers sampire- dreadful trade!
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.
The fishermen that walk upon the beach
Appear like mice; and yond tall anchoring bark,
Diminish’d to her cock; her cock, a buoy
Almost too small for sight. The murmuring surge
That on th’ unnumb’red idle pebble chafes
Cannot be heard so high. I’ll look no more,
Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong.

Edgar offers a remarkable description of a scene potentially below him but, as the audience realises, they are not at the top of a cliff.  Gloucester throws himself off what he presumes is the precipice, only to fall to the ground immediately before him. Edgar momentarily worries that his father’s imagination will be strong enough to kill him, but thankfully it is not.

In preparing for our production of King Lear this summer , then, director Nancy Meckler has a decision, as does any director of this play: does she give the audience clues that Edgar is deceiving a blind man or does she allow Edgar’s description to transport the audience as much as his father?  If the former, then the audio describers have the challenge of creating a description that encapsulates the stage and the level ground whilst still leaving imaginative space for Edgar’s cliff.

The Globe, a device built to enable deep listening, helps the audience flex its imaginative muscles during moments of description such as these. It’s a place that challenges the norm of seeing a play and, in so doing, allows room for the full gamut of human sensory experience. As new modes of audio description are explored, I would be personally be very excited to hear work by upcoming writers who have considered the variety of people within an audience, and taken into consideration how previous writing techniques lean away from assumptions about sight and spectacle. I believe that audio description can be a firm part of creating a play, and that in the near future we will be able to experience a range of creative ways of describing, each lending itself to the subject and matter of individual productions.

King Lear played at the Globe from 10 August to 14 October 2017.  The audio-described performance was on Tuesday 29 August at 14:00.