Review: Hadestown, via smart caption glasses at the National Theatre

I try out the new smart caption glasses while watching Hadestown at the National Theatre and am blown away both by the show and the frankly amazing technology 

Eurydice knew how to survive
Orpheus…knew how to live”

The exceedingly kind folk of the National Theatre allowed me to go and see Hadestown a few days after the press night, as I was most keen to have a try of the Smart Caption Glasses which were brought into circulation on Friday. Acclaimed as “a revolutionary new way for people with hearing loss to enjoy performance”, for once the blurb more than lives up to its billing as I found them to be truly innovative and potentially life-changingly good. 

Without wishing to open a whole can of worms about access and diversity within the critical community, it has to be said that as a (deaf) reviewer, I never get to go to captioned performances. If and when they’re scheduled, the timetables just don’t allow for it, so – as in most of my daily life – I make do. I hear what I hear and guess the rest. So the idea of this facility becoming available was one I was most keen to investigate at the earliest opportunity. 

Designed and manufactured by Epson, developed with support from Accenture, they’re available to book now for current performances of War Horse and Hadestown and looking ahead to 2019, they will also be featured for TartuffeFolliesTop GirlsDownstate and The Winters Tale. I picked mine up from the Olivier box office and after a simple tutorial was good to go. The glasses slotted most easily over my own spectacles, and sat reasonably comfortably there throughout the performance, they didn’t interfere or feel to heavy at all.

They really do feel like the future coming to life in front of your very eyes. All kinds of customisation can be done to the size, position and colour of the text (I went for magenta, and centre justified up top), and you can adjust them easily at any point during the performance. But the real innovation lies in the glasses themselves, the fact that they bring a transcript of the actual text (no bloody paraphrasing here!) right into your line of sight.

Normally, the act of reading captions or surtitles is a tricky balancing act of headcocking, between giving yourself enough time to scan the text without missing anything that’s happening onstage. These glasses entirely remove that, placing the captions right in front of you and allowing a much more integrated experience which I found to be, quite frankly, amazing. It really does work so well as a personalised device and consequently it feels a proper step up from the normal captioning experience.

My tips would be, for Hadestown at least, to go for scrolling text, as there’s just too many words and lyrics for the single line option to really work efficiently. And I found wearing a cardigan with pockets extremely useful in putting the controller somewhere that was easily accessible yet not just sitting in your lap (you’re advised not to put it on the floor so I don’t think you could pop it on top of your bag for instance).     

And I have to say a big thank you to the NT staff (particularly the young woman whose name began with M which I have unforgivably forgotten) who helped me with a clear induction, patience when I couldn’t start the tutorial and my other inane queries. It is clear they have put the time in to make this as painless and accessible a process for people to get to grips with and with service like this, it certainly works.

It helped that Hadestown was so fricking fantastic too. But since I’ve written more about the glasses than I intended, you can expect a separate review of the show to follow, which will come after I’ve seen it for a second time because that’s how much I loved it, I bought my tickets for a return visit whilst in the pub after the first. [Edit: review of the show proper available here].

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Helen Maybanks
Hadestown is booking at the National Theatre until 26th January

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