The poster for Hamlet portrays characters from the play as children, sat at a brown table, against a dreary grey wall. To the right, and in the forefront of the image, in front of the table, a child with ginger hair, evidently supposed to be a young Benedict Cumberbatch in the guise of Hamlet, wears period dress, including a ruffled collar. He stares, unsmiling, into the camera. Sat at the table, to the left, Ophelia is portrayed by a girl with straight dark hair and a fringe. She wears a black sleeveless dress and grey fairy wings. She leans on the table, her hands limply holding flowers, as she stares off into the distance, looking bored. A third child, a boy, is dressed as a knight and holding a sword with both hands. He is stood behind the table. On the table are a skull, a candlestick and candle, an upturned globe, a clear bottle filled with blue liquid and a paper cup with a straw, and a dark coloured crown. The word Hamlet appears in bold white text, horizontally in the bottom left corner of the image, while the word barbican runs up the left hand side of the image, in bold grey text

The Barbican’s official Hamlet poster. Credit: Barbican

Hello readers,

Samantha here,

It’s been a good while since I blogged here, and I’m very behind on writing about a number of things. But this one jumped the queue….

I’ve tried to get access tickets for the Barbican in London before, but had difficulty obtaining their access rate. In 2013, I was offered discounted tickets for the audio described performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I was unable to attend, but told I could not be offered access rate tickets for myself and my carer for any performance I could attend, because only 10 pairs of such concessionary tickets were offered per show; 5 for wheelchair users and their companions, and 5 for ambulant disabled customers and their companions. The Barbican’s offered solution for this was to offer me two top price seats, further back in the stalls than would really suit my impairment, at full price, because 5 ambulant disabled people had already booked the performances I could make. Surprisingly, five other disabled people attending does not, in fact, cause my optic nerves to spontaneously regenerate, negating the need for a seat near the front, which is invariably the highest priced ticket, nor negating the need to be accompanied by a PA/carer. I could not afford two top price tickets, so I missed the show I’d wanted to see.

So when it was announced earlier this year (in March) that the deservedly popular Benedict Cumberbatch would be taking the role of Hamlet to the Barbican in 2015, my sense of excitement at the opportunity to see one of my favourite actors on stage was quickly followed by a sense of dread and anticipatory weariness.

The fact that the Barbican do not have a dedicated access booking line, or take access bookings online, or respond promptly to emails, did not add to my sense of joy, when anticipating the booking process. Cumberbatch is a huge star, with a very dedicated fan base, tickets were going to be difficult to obtain for anyone. Would getting access tickets prove the Holy Grail of theatre?

I contacted the Barbican on 23rd May, once the on sale dates for tickets had been confirmed as being in August, explaining my disability, and asking the following questions:

1 will any discounts be offered to disabled people and carers?

2 will there be a limit placed on the number of discounted access tickets available per show? I have missed out on seeing productions in the past, as the seats that suit my needs tend to be the most expensive, and there was a limit of 10 discounted seats per performance.

3 will suitable seats, near the front, be held for visually impaired visitors for each performance?

4 will an audio described performance and touch tour be arranged?

5 how will access bookings be handled on the day tickets go on sale? Since access bookings are only taken over the phone, and regular bookings have the option of both telephone and online, and telephone lines are likely to be busy, what steps will you take to ensure that disabled people are not disadvantaged by this?

6 are members able to make access bookings before tickets go on general sale?

7 is there a limit on how many tickets a member is able to book?

Their reply stated that there would be “a limited number of Access discounts available to our Access Members for each performance of ‘Hamlet’. We do not have a confirmation on the size of the allocation yet but it is likely to be similar to previous productions (10 Ambulant Disabled and 10 Wheelchair Disabled)”.

They said that there was likely to be an audio described performance, but this was yet to be confirmed, and there would be an increased number of discounts available for this performance.

They added “Due to the huge demand we are expecting for this production, we will not be holding off seats for visually impaired customers.”

Well, that’s great. It’s good to know that the popularity of a production determines the venue’s access obligations under the Equality Act 2010! For context, when David Tennant did Richard II at the Royal Shakespeare Company at the end of last year, the RSC held tickets in suitable locations for visually impaired customers for every show. And they did not limit discounts. This also applied to the show’s transfer to the Barbican, when tickets were purchased from the RSC.

The Barbican went on to give the various on sale dates for Hamlet, stating that access members would have to be Red or Orange members to gain priority booking, otherwise they could only book by phone, and only once public booking opened. Each customer will be limited to six tickets, they explained.

They added “In regards to handling Access bookings, we can assure you that we will do our very best to handle all calls as quickly and efficiently as possible. That being said, this production has generated a huge amount of interest and the phone lines will inevitably be very busy.”. Well, at least they recognise that it’ll be busy. It doesn’t really help disabled customers scrabbling for very limited access discounts, though, does it? It isn’t equality of access when non disabled patrons can use the internet or the phone to book any of 1156 seats for each show of Hamlet, while disabled people will only be able to use the phone to try to book just 20 seats per show. What about people who cannot use the phone?

I discussed my concerns with several other disabled people who I knew wanted to go, with various impairments; my concerns were shared by others, and the consensus seemed to be that replies from the Barbican in response to access requests for this production were “pushing membership”.

By offering discounted tickets to disabled people and carers, the Barbican are acknowledging that this is a reasonable adjustment, as people with some disabilities need a carer with them, and some disabilities require specific, often more expensive, seating. To my memory, there is nothing in the Equality Act 2010 which says reasonable adjustments are only to be offered to the first few people accessing something.

Now, in addition to this, the Barbican has a Silver Charter from Attitude is Everything, which includes them offering a 2 for 1, or equivalent scheme, for disabled people and PAs/carers. As far as I was aware, this didn’t include offering only a very limited number of such discounts. Attitude is Everything work to improve access to live music. The Barbican has a silver charter mark from them, as it is also a music venue.

So I contacted Attitude is Everything, who fed my concerns back to the Barbican. AiE passed on the Barbican’s response:

“Anyone who needs a carer in order to attend an event is given a free companion seat; we also have other access discounts available for disabled people who do not need the assistance of a carer and the amount of these are capped depending on performance.

  • The number of wheelchair spaces in each venue is solely determined by the space available – in the Concert Hall we have 20; these spaces are charged at 50% off the lowest price seat in the house.
  • For general access members (who do not require the assistance of a carer) and who are concerned that they may miss out on discounted tickets (which are capped), we do suggest that they may wish to consider membership as a way of obtaining priority booking for popular shows. I don’t think it’s fair to say that we ‘push’ this.
  • It’s true that we often don’t know the date of any AD performance until the tickets go on sale. However, a block of seats are held off sale in the stalls to accommodate any AD customers. These would not be available to anyone other than an AD booker until the performance had sold out at which time they would be released for general sale. The same is true for our CAP/BSL/Relaxed Performances and wheelchair seats.
  • Access members do have to book over the phone for two reasons:
    • to make use of any available discount
    • to ensure they are allocated the correct seat
    • There is an access email address and phone that people can use for general enquiries. We prefer people to use the phone to pass on their credit card details as this is the most secure method. However, if that’s not possible we will take bookings on email or take a reservation.”

Their response didn’t really address my concerns. In fact, it raised some inconsistencies in what the Barbican were saying, which I’ll come to later, but more importantly, it raised another concern. Seats would be held off for the Audio Described performance, until that performance had otherwise sold out, then seats would be released? Theoretically, given the popularity of this show, this could mean that the held seats for people needing audio description could be released to Barbican members without access needs, before tickets even went on general sale, should the rest of the tickets for that performance sell out during the Priority Booking period!

Having got no joy from the Barbican direct, or from Attitude is Everything, I decided to contact the production company, Sonia Friedman Productions, directly. I emailed them on 14th June, without going into detail, to see if they had anyone appropriate for me to discuss  concerns with.

I got a reply on 17th June, from an intern, saying my email had been forwarded, but they were very busy and could not promise a reply due to this. I responded, expressing my disappointment that they seemed to have no interest in ensuring that equality of access was provided for Hamlet tickets, and pointed out that this could leave them open to complaints in the future.

On the 26th June, I was emailed by Ben Prudhoe of Sonia Friedman Productions. He copied in several colleagues at the Barbican, who he said would be able to address my concerns. He also said that the Barbican would be offering 4 wheelchair spaces with companion seats available for all performances. (I had previously been told 5, I don’t know what happened to the other space!)

I responded on 20th July, setting out the concerns:

I explained that the concerns I was expressing were not just my own, but expressed by a number of disabled people, including myself, who wish to attend Hamlet, who feel, following requesting information from the barbican, that equality of access is not being offered.

I explained that the issues are:

-Not holding back seats suitable for people with access needs, other than for the two access performances.

-limiting the number of discounted tickets offered for disabled people and carers.

-placing a limit on discounts that does not reflect the percentage of people with disabilities in the UK, nor the percentage of disabled people who are not wheelchair users.

-Not allowing disabled people to book online, and having no dedicated booking line to ensure disabled people are able to buy tickets for the production.

– limiting the number of tickets one person can buy, without amending this to account for the need for carers to attend.

I also expressed that I felt the expected demand for tickets to Hamlet should not affect access arrangements, and explained that it was felt by several people that membership was being pushed as a solution to the Barbican not holding tickets in suitable locations for disabled people.

I explained that my experience with access bookings at other theatres in London, and talking to contacts, suggested that there are two ways theatres usually deal with access tickets when there is a priority booking period. The first is by setting aside seats for access members, that are not available during Priority Booking, unless someone is both an access and a priority member. These become available, to access members only, during public booking. The Barbican are only holding seats for the single AD performance. The second option can be considered “positive discrimination”, in that the theatres let people with access needs book during the priority period, but don’t hold back any seats. The Barbican were doing neither– they weren’t holding any seats back for customers with disabilities, other than for the audio described and signed performances.

The reason given for not holding any seats in locations suitable for visually impaired people, other than for the single AD performance, was that they weren’t doing that, as they anticipate this show being very popular.

The need to provide equality of access does not cease because a show is popular.

I explained that because of the above, I felt it was likely that, without purchasing membership to get access to seats, no seats appropriate for those with visual impairment (near the stage) would be left by the time regular booking opens. A show being popular is not a good enough reason to offer poorer access.

The barbican has a silver charter with AiE, one of the criteria for this is a 2for1 scheme or equivalent discount for disabled people who require a carer in order to attend. Despite this, I’ve had problems securing access bookings for productions in the past, as the barbican limit their discounts/2for1 schemes to allow a carer/companion to a very small number of tickets, usually 5 pairs per show, and then there is no option but to pay double for yourself and a companion to attend.

This has meant I’ve missed out on things at the Barbican in the past, as I’ve not been able to afford two tickets at the top price rate, which due to my use of low vision aids, are the seats most appropriate for my needs.

For this production, they say they are likely to be offering 10 pairs of concessionary tickets per show, 5 wheelchair users, 5 not. They say more will be offered for the audio described and signed perfomances, if these occur.

By offering discounted tickets to disabled people and carers, they are acknowledging that this is a reasonable adjustment, as people with some disabilities need a carer with them, and some disabilities require specific, often more expensive, seating. To my memory, there is nothing in the Equality Act 2010 which says reasonable adjustments are only to be offered to the first few people accessing something. By offering a discount, the barbican are acknowledging that they consider this to be a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act.

A reasonable adjustment that they themselves offer does not cease to apply just because 5 other disabled people booked for that show first. The legal obligation to provide a reasonable adjustment to any single disabled service user doesn’t cease just because other disabled people are attending.

I do not think the popularity, and profitability, of a show should allow poorer access to be offered. The RSC held appropriate seats for visually impaired people, even during David Tennant’s run in Richard II, and they did place a limit on concessions offered. The National Theatre, similarly, holds appropriate seats and does not limit the concessions offered.

Other theatres offer a disabled/carer discount whenever it is needed, rather than limiting this to a tiny number. If a limit really need to be placed, it needs to be at a percentage of the seating capacity in line with the percentage of disabled people in the population.

Disabled people make up 18% of the UK’s working age population, rising to over 40% of those above retirement age. If we assume that roughly half of the 20 concessions per show are needed for carer seats, and the Barbican seats 1156, ten disabled people being offered a reasonable adjustment to enable them to access the show is less than 1% of the Barbican’s seats.

They are offering the same number of wheelchair and ambulant disabled concessions. While obviously wheelchair spaces are hugely important, and it’s good they are doing this, wheelchair users are actually a small minority of disabled people, actually less than 8%. Wheelchair spaces will be, be their very nature, held for access bookings I assume, whereas they are holding no suitable seats for people with other access needs. (N.B. the information from the Barbican provided by AiE suggests even wheelchair seats would be released, once the rest of the seats for any performance are sold out).

While I recognise that the number of wheelchair spaces are decided by the physical limitations of the space, the availability of a discount for disabled customers who do not require a wheelchair space needs to be increased to reflect the percentage of disabled people who do not use a wheelchair. Otherwise one group of disabled people has greater access than another. This is discriminatory.

The barbican were not allowing disabled people to book online or even having a dedicated access booking line, this is not equality of access and will make it harder for disabled people to access tickets.

While I appreciate the need to ensure appropriate seats are offered to disabled people, other theatres have a dedicated access line to ensure disabled customers do not miss out. Given their slow response to access emails, I would not trust that emailing them would result in any tickets for a popular show. Given that you have to be a member of their access list, it is untrue that it is not possible to allow disabled people to book online. The Royal Albert Hall allow disabled customers to book seats online for their proms season, after registration to their access list. This improves access.

The Barbican are restricting sales to 6 tickets per person. This does not acknowledge that some people with disabilities would be unable to attend alone, if they wanted to. Similarly, taking a needed carer reduces the number of friends a disabled person can go to the show with.

The Barbican are only holding appropriate seats for the single AD performance, the date of which they had stated they wouldn’t confirm until tickets go on sale.

This means, on the day tickets go on sale, I would only be able to book by telephone, when it is going to be completely overwhelmed by bookers. If I eventually get through before the run sells out entirely, I would then instantly have to make a decision about whether I can attend the audio described performance and whether I can find someone to accompany me. If the show of audio description sells out, as all the shows are likely to do, even those seats held for visually impaired customers would be released (according to the Barbican’s information, held seats are released once the general allocation sells out).

I ended my email by stating that I thought they would be leaving themselves open to complaints from disabled people, and that I would appreciate a response before tickets went on sale on the 1st August.

Benjamin Lalague at the Barbican responded the following day, on July 21st, to ask me to bear with him. He said they would get back to me by Friday 25th or Monday 28th July. On the 29th, I emailed them to say I’d had no response as yet. Benjamin replied to say his colleague would be responding that day. This also didn’t happen.

During this week, the Barbican announced that 100  tickets (yes, you read that right, 100 tickets per performance, for all 90 shows) would be held back, for sale at £10 each in 2015. 

Rebecca Oliver responded to my concerns on 30th July.

She said that access to the arts was important to the Barbican, and it was not their intention to give the impression that equality of access was not being offered.

Rebecca was able to confirm the dates of the captioned and audio described performances, ahead of tickets going on sale on the 1st August (hurrah!) and confirm that discounted seats would be held for patrons needing these services.

Rebecca mentioned the 100 £10 seats per performance, like this was A Good Thing, and that the fact they were holding almost 10% of seats for a huge discount didn’t make their 10-20 access discounts per show (with no held seats) look like an even poorer option.

She went on to say they understood I may not be able to make the captioned performance (because that would be highly useful to someone with a *visual impairment*, right readers? She should talk to the Doctor Who Experience! De ja vu!) and in which case, they would attempt to accommodate me in the first few rows of an alternative performance, subject to availability, as they would aim to meet any customers’ needs.

Rebecca stated “If an access member specifically requires the assistance of a carer within the auditorium then a free carer ticket would be offered as a reasonable adjustment to our provision. This does not extend to companion seats for all access members as this adjustment may not be necessary. For someone with a hearing impairment to attend the performance, we provide a hard of hearing system and also a captioned performance. Our audio described performance is a further reasonable adjustment in line with our commitment to ensuring access to the arts for all, best practice and industry standard.

If access members wish to make use of any discounts available or to book specific areas, for example wheelchair spaces, then they are required to book over the phone to ensure that the best and most appropriate seats are selected for their needs, ensure eligibility for wheelchair spaces and that any discounts are applied. We do not have a dedicated access line – this is to ensure we provide the most efficient service. All of our ticket sales advisors are trained in assisting our customers with specific access requirements and we have many advisors and lines available to take calls rather than just one line, which reduces any potential waiting time.”

She stated there were no plans to extend priority booking to access members, as this was a substantial benefit offered to those who join their membership scheme, but said that some access list customers had opted to take out membership in order to book for Hamlet during the priority booking period.

She explained they were restricting the number of tickets per customer to prevent “secondary sales” (ticket touts); she did not address that customers with access needs would then be able to attend with less friends, if they used a paid carer to attend.

(Are we not supposed to have friends? It certainly seems like it sometimes, when trying to book. At others, it seems like we’re not allowed to associate with other disabled people, because only a limited number of us can go to any one show, and at yet other times, that we’re only supposed to associated with other disabled people. Can someone clarify the rules of Ableism for me? Cause my head hurts just thinking about it. Sorry, set snark to minimum levels and get on with telling the tale, Samantha!)

They concluded that they hoped I would be reassured that they really do genuinely consider their customers’ access needs at all stages in booking and when visiting the Barbican.

Um….. well, we know the dates of the audio described performance before tickets go on sale. That’s progress, right guys?

They did not address the fact that they weren’t holding back suitable seats for the 88 regular shows, just for the single AD and single captioned performance. They did not explain why they were limiting the number of access discounts, how frugal this limit was for this show, or why it didn’t reflect the UK population level of access needs. They did not address how they were going to ensure disabled people had the same access to book tickets, when they could only book by phone and able people could book online as well. 

I replied, thanking Rebecca for her email, and saying I was glad the accessible performances had been confirmed. I asked her to confirm:

How many seats would be held off sale for the AD and captioned performance, and where these were in the auditorium.

How many access discounts were being offered for other performances, and expressed that if this was still 10 pairs, I considered this insufficient, given the percentages of disabled people in the UK. I explained that I felt this decision, and that to not hold suitable seats for customers with access needs due to the anticipated popularity of the production, to be even more curious in light of their decision to hold off 100 seats per show to sell at £10.

I said “I expect this is substantially cheaper than the access seats, and if the production can afford to offer 100 seats at this price, I fail to see why the reasonable adjustment of a discount on a disabled customer ticket, and, where needed, a discounted companion ticket, should be capped at all, let alone at a tiny percentage of the venue’s capacity”.

I also asked whether the number of Red and Orange members were available, to help disabled people who were still considering whether membership was their best shot at getting suitable tickets make a decision.

I, and other people, did not feel reassured by the Barbican’s response and access arrangements, particularly in light of the 100 tickets per show announcement, and were finding the prospect of trying to get tickets stressful. And no reply was received from the Barbican, until after priority booking opened for Red members on August 1st, and Orange members on August 4th.

Rebecca’s colleague Angie Smith emailed me at 2pm on 5th August, to say Rebecca had asked her to respond to the questions I had asked (the answers to which I never did get) but that she was in meetings all day and realised the urgency of my situation, and therefore “bearing in mind your circumstances and individual needs, I would strongly recommend that you become an Orange Member as soon as possible so we can book you in today.  We have experienced unprecedented demand for Hamlet tickets and therefore must emphasise that becoming a Barbican Member cannot guarantee access to tickets as the priority booking period continues”.

So basically, they were saying if I waited until the general booking period, it was highly unlikely any seats meeting my needs in the front of the stalls section would be available. Orange membership, at £45, was my best, and recommended option.

Angie went on to say they were holding “a fair number” of seats for the two access performances and despite the unprecedented demand, these were still available, but were likely to be released for sale as soon as the performance sells out.  She stated that if I couldn’t make those dates, they would endeavour to offer me suitable seats for another performance. She stated that they would call me that day to book seats, if I wanted to take out membership, and if not, they could call me on August 11th, when general booking opened, “if any tickets are still available on Monday”.

Well, I’d set out to try to improve the access for all disabled customers. I had failed. I doubted very much every customer on their access list was getting such an email, I was, because I’d made a nuisance of myself. But I did still desperately want to see the production. So I replied, less than 90 minutes later, to say I would take out a membership, and provide my contact details. They asked for clarification on preferred dates, I replied again.

No one phoned.

I emailed again at 19.39. And again, the following day, at 11.30.

Late afternoon, around tea time, they finally called. I was sold membership, and then tickets suitable to my needs, near the front of the stalls.

After I got off the phone, I realised these tickets had been half the price of a top stalls ticket, at £30ish each.

Considerably dearer than the £10 tickets they were holding.

Considerably dearer than the “half the price of the cheapest ticket in the auditorium” the Barbican told Attitude is Everything wheelchair users would get.

And the companion ticket was discounted, but not “complementary”, as Rebecca had said in her initial response to me on 30th July, and the Barbican had told Attitude is Everything.

So I emailed Rebecca, to thank her for arranging my tickets, and, most importantly ask about the “complimentary” companion ticket she had previously mentioned, and, once again, to ask about the numbers of access discounts and seats held for the accessible performances.

I think they thought I’d shut up and go away once I had my tickets. So I explained that, as I had previously mentioned, that I blog on access issues and would really value this information for the blog.

Rebecca replied two days later, to say:

“For audit reasons and to prevent misuse we don’t issue ‘complimentary’ tickets as such as part of our access scheme. Instead we discount both tickets to half price which is the equivalent of one paid one free.” and that they “don’t publish information” on the discounts they offer.

Well, her colleague back in May had been happy to tell me how many access discounts were likely to be held. Why the sudden reticence?

And Rebecca herself had said “there will be a number of general discounted access tickets available for each performance for access members… If an access member specifically requires the assistance of a carer within the auditorium then a free carer ticket would be offered”. Attitude is Everything had also been given the same information.

I replied, quoting Rebecca’s earlier email, and stating “This does read as the Barbican offering a discounted access ticket and a free carer ticket where appropriate.”

I thanked Rebecca for the clarification.

To date, I have received no response to my email pointing out exactly what she had told me, and how this didn’t fit with the tickets I was sold.

I have also, as of today, submitted a request for the information I had already asked for, specifically asking that they treat it as a request, under the Freedom of Information Act.

Watch this space.

__________________________________________________________

Phew!

Are you still with me? Anyone?? Oh, yes, you there, I see you!

Well done to those of you who made it this far.

It’s a long read, huh? Feel exhausted, I bet?

Well, this is what disabled people regularly have to go through, to get tickets for things.

I’ve had difficulty getting, or been unable to get, tickets for at least three events in the time I’ve been trying to secure tickets for Hamlet. It’s so commonplace that if I blogged every instance, I’d never leave my computer.

Granted, this time, I made it way harder on myself by not giving up. If there is one trait I don’t lack, it’s stubbornness. But I wanted to try to improve the Barbican’s access, not just for me, but for everyone. And not just for this show, but for all show.

And without being…. *persistent* is probably the nicest way to phrase it, I may not have tickets.

But I’m still sad I couldn’t improve the system 🙁