Benidict Cumberbatch as Victor Frankenstein, embraced by Jonny Lee Miller as The CreatureI wanted to share another example of how powerful it can be when accessibility is done right…

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to be able to see Frankenstein at the National Theatre. In fact, I was lucky enough to see it twice. The leads, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternated the roles of the Creature and Victor Frankenstein.

The National do some great accessibility stuff, signed performances, audio described performances, touch tours, disabled and carer discounts… every season I get their brochure on audio CD. Now, I’d never done a touch tour before, so I was interested in that, but my experiences of audio description have been….. variable. Yes, that’s the most polite way to put it: variable.

As is usual for me, I did things in the wrong order. Because I wanted to see a particular casting, I saw the play on a Thursday, which wasn’t an audio described performance, then did the touch tour on the Saturday (wrong, wrong, wrong. You’ll see why).

The play was phenomenal. The performances, design, lighting, sound, music…. all amazing. I won’t bore you with the details, the rave reviews are easily found.

As I said, I’ve never done a touch tour. I had no idea what to expect. When we got there, there were quite a few visually impaired people, some with carers, some with guide dogs, some alone. Lots of staff (I’m told they are front of house staff; in which case, they are exceptionally well trained). The particular theatre (the Olivier) at the National provides a challenge, the stage is almost circular, and has what is called, I believe, a drum revolve: a circular piece in the middle of the stage that rotates and can change height, which is utilised well in the production. As a result, there were staff along the aisle and around the edges of thr stage, for safety.

We were all invited onto the stage, where the chief audio describer gave a brief intro, we were then invited to move around the stage and look at, and touch, the set and props. There was so much detail I hadn’t seen from the stalls. We were able to touch the sets and costumes, the huge steam train prop, have the special lighting effects demonstrated, look at the puppet birds that move so fast in the production, and even invited to ring the huge bell used in the show.

There were ample staff, and anyone who wasn’t with a carer had a person allocated to assist them, describe things, and help them touch things. The audio describer wandered around everyone, answering questions. A staff member had a tray of the creature’s scars for us to examine up close and touch.

Then I had a fan girl moment….The audio describer called everyone to attention, sounding surprised: “Ladies and gentleman, the Creature has joined us!”. Benedict Cumberbatch, in full creature make up (and a dressing gown-the Creature is naked at the start of the production!) walked up to me and proffered his arm, “would you like to feel my scars?”!! People who spoke to me about this show will know I had been joking for months about whether the touch tour would involve manhandling the actors; I didn’t actually expect it!

The touch tour was AMAZING, I felt I understood things about the performances I hadn’t when seeing it, and I was so impressed by the audio describer, I now *wanted* to hear it described…. plus, I wanted to see the other casting variation! I was incredibly lucky and got tickets for an audio described performance of the casting I hadn’t yet seen, so a mad dash to London, there and back in one day, was arranged.

The National sent me a CD with my tickets, which had audio of the entire programme, and descriptions of sets and costumes.

The audio description of the show was a true performance, it was ART. It was like listening to a radio play, and really added to the production, rather than distracting from it. I’d love a recording of it, it would work (with the sounds of the show) without any visuals.

But the amazing thing was what my brain did with the information from the touch tour.

Ok, a bit of science… we all use top down processing. It’s where your brain figures out what it can see, and as a result, sees more than you actually can. For example, it primes us to see faces. We don’t notice top down processing when it works, we notice it when it gets it wrong; when we see pictures in the clouds, faces in someone’s flowery carpet, when we read a sign and do a double take because we swear for a second it said something rude. My brain uses it *a lot*. If I’m meeting someone I know out in public, I know it’s them way, way before I can see their face. My brain takes in their overall shape, the way they move, etc.

But what was AMAZING was that my brain filled in things it had seen close at the touch tour, when I saw the show for a second time! The first time, I knew there were scars on The Creature, but had to ask my carer to describe them to me. The second time, I COULD SEE THEM!!! I actually had to ask my carer if they’d made them a lot more visable because they knew some of the audience were visually impaired. No. It was just my amazing, amazing brain! (Either that, or my optic nerves spontaniously regenerated, which seems highly unlikely!).

So, thank you National Theatre, for an outstanding touch tour and audio description. Thank you Benedict, for the stroking! And thank you, my brain, for astounding me! Getting accessibility right makes the difference between meh, at best, and livid, at worst, and AMAZING!!

If you have a visual impairment, take the opportunity to do a touch tour before the performance, if it’s available. I’d love to know if other people find the same effects.