The Elizabethan Experience

I had no clue about disability until I found myself having a daughter with cerebral palsy – quite by accident. I think a lot of the time that’s how things happen. I was obviously not present when Oberon in A Midsummer’s Night Dream blessed the audience not to have disabled children.

I know this, not because I am an expert in The Bard’s work, but because I went to a workshop about disability in performance. It was at The Globe Theatre in Southwark. Its emphasis was on Elizabethan theatre. Not exactly my area of expertise. Not anywhere close.

I went to the workshop to get a handle on any opportunities or children’s workshops that might work for Delphine. What I got was a very deep and at times, poignant discussion about whether disability is something that should stand out in theatre. Within The Globe’s setting, re-built to it’s original 1599 condition, candelabras with real, burning candles hung from the painted ceiling. Unsurprising the emphasis was on its historical context. Actors read two passages from Shakespeare directly about disability. In both passages (see below for details) he used disability as a metaphor for misfortune. We, the audience, sat back and reflected upon this. Then, because the evening was a workshop, it was as neatly inclusive as its subject matter.

In terms of exploring the historical aspects of disability and seeing it for the often cruel way it portrayed and reflected the society of the time, at one point it was questioned whether it was necessary to do so at all. Let the past be the past, admit Shakespeare got it wrong and move along kind of ethos. Brave question for a bunch of Shakespearian try-hards. And the guy who asked it got gently roasted by the people in charge, which didn’t really matter because he made a plethora of other expert Shakespeare points. Including the above one about Oberon.

Another guy offered, ‘Well, aren’t we all disabled at the end of the day in one way or another?’ This was a more wince-provoking question – especially as a main ‘player’ on the stage just happened to have pretty significant cerebral palsy. I think the formidable actor in the wheelchair trumps your end-of-life disability. But this was a learning experience and no shame was built into the questions. Indeed, it became an insightful discussion for everyone. In the middle of it, listening to the history of disability in performance, I had an epiphany of my own.

I don’t mind Shakespeare’s twisted blessing. Everyone seemed shocked, but I understood that feeling of misfortune he was trying to prevent. This is because, when Delph arrived on this Earth and we discovered her disability, I felt an almost overwhelming feeling of misfortune. Painful but true. And then, until recently, I had a huge dilemma trying to hide her disability. It was the whole ‘Delphine’s the same as everyone else’ march. Turned out this happened in the performance world too. Until recently, disability was pretty much ignored in theatre. Don’t talk about it, don’t hurt people’s feelings – it became the elephant in the room.

The only reason I don’t ignore it anymore is because I’ve run out of options denying Delph’s disability. It was brought on by too many brick walls. Delph can’t go on ballet pointe. She may not be able to achieve ballet exams. Instead, we’re on a run to London for her inclusive dance school – so she doesn’t have to be the only disabled dancer in the room. These are her people.

In the same way, disability in performance has come to a similar place. Yes, the disabled actors on the stage said they audition as much for disabled roles as they do for non-disabled roles. The pinnacle for them would be playing roles which had nothing to do with their disability. This in turn would allow the audience to reflect at their own pace. It’s a powerful thing for audiences to face their own stereotypes. Ableism is so ingrained in all of us; it’s a huge, heavy coat to throw off. Taking it off makes us feel more human. We are all human.

Delphine’s dance company did a show last month which illustrated their disability. Yes, it was about more than disability but essentially you can’t get away from the very physical aesthetic of dance. The upshot is that this style of dance has enormous heart. Endorsed by our newest ballet reviewer, Jack, who got to see this show and the RAD’s show, Cinderella last week.

He said, ‘Cinderella was amazing, but it was all about being technically perfect. Delph’s show was about the heart. Now what’s for dinner?’

I’m making the last bit up. He cooked dinner.

A lot of questions by slightly-scarily-smart people were banded around last night at the wonderful Globe Theatre. How much we should pay attention to disability? Should we treat it as something better than abled-bodied people using terms such as extra-ordinary? Or do we rail at it still being a form of marginalisation?

The actor on stage, Athena Stevens, said it best. It took a little while to understand her, to get an ear into her speech pattern. I fell in love with her smile. So cheeky. Humour an exploding balloon.

‘I can’t dress myself,’ she said. ‘I can’t feed myself either. I live in a flat in London. And I consider myself having enormous privilege. What I would like is just to act. To perform roles without even considering my wheelchair and the way I speak. In this way, it will serve to heighten everyone’s senses. This can only be a good thing. For all of us.’

Scenes performed from Shakespeare: Epistle to Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and ‘To the great variety of readers’ from Shakespeare’s First Folio




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