I went to see a performance of By the Bog of Cats by Marina Carr at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. I’ve seen audio described films before, but I was curious what the AD in a theatre would be like. In most conventional plays there is much more dialogue than in films, consequently the need for additional comments may be less. Additionally the actors don’t leave the stage and although changes in the setting are indicated by props and stage design, there is less to describe compared to a film set where the actors actually move to different places, although what is to see on a theatre stage often has a greater symbolic importance.
On the other hand, I’ve been to modern plays where a lot of the action and emotions were conveyed by movement and body language. Because of that and because it’s more fun to talk with someone about the performance afterwards, I usually go with a friend who can describe setting and costumes to me and can give some explanations, if necessary.
Set within a small rural community living at the edge of a bog in county Offaly, By the Bog of Cats contains all the essential ingredients of a traditional Irish tale: family feuds, ghosts, ambitions to gain more land through an arranged marriage, eviction, a horrific tragedy and some humour in between to lighten the mood. Being an unmarried mother and a more or less settled traveller, the main character Hester Swane also embodies current social issues.
Carthage Kilbride built Hester and their daughter Josie a house so that the child would have a “normal” settled life, but now he wants to move up the social ladder* and agrees to marry Caroline Casey the young and rather naïve daughter of a better-off farmer. Consequently, he tries to persuade Hester to leave, but she refuses, despite several warnings from the other world delivered by an American-Western-Style Ghost fancier and the blind Catwoman who has a passion for raw mice and the parish priest. Shadows from the past, her overwhelming love for her daughter and the man who left her, her pride and her rage drive Hester to take extreme steps. A captivating play with powerful acting.
The performance was followed by a Q&A session where the actors talked about their approach to their characters and the play in general.
The audio description
The staff at the Abbey was very helpful and we were allowed to take our seats before everyone else. The audio device comes with headphones and is very simple to use. It is like one of the audio sets handed out in museums as audio guides. All the user has to do is turn it on and off and change the volume.
The audio description was performed live by a woman with a pleasant voice. She briefly described the setting before the play started. Describing the beginning of the play must have been quite difficult, because in addition to what was happening onstage short video clip flashbacks of Hester’s live were projected onto the wall behind the actors. Some scenes were accompanied by suitable atmospheric music. However, even with two ear pieces I had to turn the volume right up at these moments, only to quickly turn it down again when the music stopped.
In my opinion the audio description was extremely professional and exactly timed. The voice in my ear never talked into the dialogue and never gave too much away or interpreted more than necessary. Generally, the sound was clear; only once or twice I heard background noises.
Because the timing and length of the commentary is so important in a live performance, the audio describer is in some way part of the performance; for the visually impaired it is an integral part of the theatrical experience.
I would have understood the play without audio description, but it certainly told me details I would have missed without it and made it easier to follow the plot. I’d like to use this opportunity to encourage more blind and visually impaired people to avail of audio described performances to show the people who make it possible that we appreciate their efforts and of course it’s a great day or night out.
Several plays are performed with audio description and subtitles at the Abbey Theatre throughout the year; as far as I know unfortunately always for one performance only. So if you’re interested keep an eye on the programme. However, productions at the Abbey are always worth a visit even without audio description.