Magazine article The Spectator

Does Art Transcend Disability?

Magazine article The Spectator

Does Art Transcend Disability?

Article excerpt

Does disability make a difference to art - or does art transcend disability? Selina Mills reports

The moment you invite friends to some new 'cutting-edge' disability theatre or film, most swallow paroxysms of social anxiety. What if it's dull? Am I allowed to yawn? What if I hate it? How interminably politically correct will it be? Do I want to think about 'disability' on a fun night out?

While most objections can be overcome by a convincing performance, it is interesting to ask whether disability makes a difference to art, or does art transcend disability? If the current crop of plays and films, not to mention disability production companies, is anything to go by, the answer is yes to both, and we should want more of them. Art is informed by the world it is created into and represents, and given that one in four of us will be disabled at some point in our lives, surely disability must be part of our creative lives as well.

The British and Russian co-production In Touch at the National's Dorfman Theatre last month showed difference with magical ingenuity. The play follows the lives of various deafblind characters, and at first you are certainly aware of 'difference' because you behold an entire ensemble (both disabled and non-disabled) touch-signing on stage. It was akin to watching tai chi -- movement and communication in perfect synchronicity. But as the play progresses, disabilities fade, and life stories become the focus. Who knew about Olga Skorokhodova, a leading Soviet scientist and researcher who was deafblind and whose life story is rendered beautifully by Jenny Agutter and the surrounding ensemble. Ultimately, this was an ode to communication, and it is a great pity that it was in town for only two performances.

Jenny Sealey, who co-directed the show and is the artistic director of Graeae, a disability-led theatre company (and who also, by the way, co-curated the opening show for the London 2012 Paralympics), is unapologetic in using her own 'difference' -- she is deaf -- because, she says, it gives her a unique perspective. 'The thing that people forget is that theatre is about having different experiences, so it's all about using this as part of the artistic process. Difference, of any kind, informs art.' Jenny says that more and more mainstream theatre companies, such as the RSC and the Globe, not to mention the National, are turning to disabled directors and actors in order to find new ways of collaborating and thinking.

And there is a lot of new theatre led by disabled actors out there. Of course, not all productions will suit everyone's palate, and this is because not every play can suit everyone. Mind the Gap's Mia: Daughters of Misfortune (premièred at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year, and about to go on tour), about the sexual rights of learning-disabled people, is deeply poignant but a show perhaps best aimed at a more alternative crowd. So, too, is Graeae's Reasons to be Cheerful, a raucous musical based on Ian Dury's songs at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, which, if you like Ian Dury and his politics, is a fun night out, particularly if you want to learn how to sign 'sex and drugs and rock and roll'.

Occasionally, the standard of acting is mixed. ChickenShed's production of Marlow's Dr Faustus stars the impressive and charismatic Ashley Driver as Dr Faustus and the brooding Paul Harris as Mephistopheles, but the rest of the cast were uneven. At moments there was the whiff of a sixth-form production, despite the recorded tones of Derek Jacobi playing the old man pleading for Faustus's soul. …

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