Caro Meets Theatre Interview

PJ Stanley: Crystal Clear

By | Published on Friday 19 July 2019

‘Crystal Clear’, which first won acclaim, and a West End run, when it was staged at The Old Red Lion back in the 1980s heads back to the same venue for revival this week. The play looks at how living with disabilities can affect a life, and, despite its initial success, hasn’t been performed much since.

To find out more about the play, and why it’s being staged now, I spoke to director PJ Stanley.

CM: Let’s start with the content of the play: whose story does it tell, and where does the narrative take us?
PJS: Thomasina, a blind social worker, begins an affair with Richard, who is himself partially sighted after complications with diabetes. As the story unfolds, Richard loses sight in his other eye, beginning a downward spiral that he struggles to escape. His relationships with sighted partner Jane and Thomasina deteriorate, and he finds himself having to adapt rapidly to his new reality. With the news that Richard’s sight loss is permanent, he faces the difficult question of whether two blind people can build a life together in a world made for the sighted.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
PJS: ‘Crystal Clear’ is a play about loss and coping. It’s about blindness, and the social understandings and misunderstandings of disability. It’s about privilege, and what happens when an able-bodied person finds themselves suddenly in an unfamiliar and hostile world. And ultimately, through all this, it’s about love trying to shut out the dark.

CM: What do you like about the play, and what made you want to direct a production of it?
PJS: The play is a firecracker. It’s relentless and honest and complicated. It’s also very much a product of its time. I was drawn to the challenge of telling this story for a different generation of audience, and zeroing in on the parts of it that still burn brightly. The play asks some difficult and challenging questions about blindness and disability, and the opportunity to revive the play was an opportunity to re-ask these questions in 2019. What’s changed since these characters first stood on the Old Red Lion stage nearly 40 years ago, and what has stayed the same? And what can this tell us about where we are, and where we’re going?

CM: The play was first staged in the early eighties at the Old Red Lion, before its success in the West End. Is that why it’s being staged there again?
PJS: We always hoped to bring ‘Crystal Clear’ home to the Old Red Lion. There’s a real magic to be walking in the footsteps of the original run, sharing the same space whilst being separated only by time. But even though we’re in the same venue with the same old quirks and eccentricities, how we’re using the space should feel very different. We wanted to celebrate the Old Red by challenging ourselves to transform it in a way that is surprising and pushing the limits of what it can hold.

CM: Has the play been performed much since that first major run? Why stage it again now?
PJS: The play has seen some traction internationally, but there haven’t been many UK productions since ‘83. That’s partly the appeal of reviving it. We’re in a totally different social and theatrical context now than we were in the 80s, and that context will change how people respond to the play and the conversations it will be a part of. It’s sort of a dialogue across time, a marker of then and now. And this time around it’s a chance to open up that exchange more to visually-impaired and blind audiences, and to put questions of access at the forefront of the production.

CM: Are the themes as relevant now as ever? Have we moved on at all with regard to our understanding of the issues raised since that first staging?
PJS: I think the most I can say is that’s the question I’m interested in asking! I don’t have a lived experience of blindness or disability, and it wouldn’t be for me to say which parts of the play are important or relevant in this respect. But I’ve been privileged to meet and collaborate with a number of talented blind artists on this project, each of whom have brought forward very different and stimulating responses to the material. If the conversations taking place after the show are anything like those that have opened up in the process of making this show, I know our audiences will have a lot to take away from the piece.

CM: Can you tell us about the steps you’ve taken to make the show accessible?
PJS: Our focus was to make each performance of Crystal Clear accessible to visually-impaired audiences. The first step we took was to include a layer of live audio description audible to everyone in the theatre. We didn’t want to hide access away behind a set of headphones in the odd matinee performance here and there. We wanted visually-impaired and sighted audiences to share in the experience of AD and to celebrate it as a creative medium in its own right. Staging the piece in-the-round in a small venue also allowed us think about sound information in a more 3-dimensional sense. We work very hard in the opening beats of the play to establish the aural geometry of the space so that you can learn to recognise by sound when characters are in certain locations or near certain pieces of set, and so on. We also offer touch tours for the piece, where audiences can come onto the set before the show opens and get to know the space by touch. And there are access considerations in how we deliver pre-show notes, how we guide audiences to the venue itself, how we think about accessibility in terms of lighting and design. But it’s not exhaustive, and no show is 100% accessible. I’d love to have been able to caption the show, or make the space wheelchair accessible, for example. There are always ways we can be improving.

CM: There are some post show events accompanying the show, aren’t there? Can you tell us a bit about those?
PJS: We’re excited to be hosting a rapid response performance during the run which will present short plays and scenes created by visually impaired and sighted artists in response to Crystal Clear. We’re also running a post-show discussion about access and representation of disability in theatre, led by our access consultant Amelia Cavallo. The aim for these events is to open up a forum for artistic and critical response to the themes and provocations of Crystal Clear. Above all, it’s about supporting a dialogue led by those whose life experience the play speaks about, and keeping the conversation going beyond the performance itself.

‘Crystal Clear’ is on at The Old Red Lion from 23 Jul-17 Aug. See the venue website here for information and to book.


Photo: Lidia Crisafulli