Disability and a little politics in Grahamstown

Last year I made 3 theatre pieces and a couple of video bits with Dave Toole; two shows at the Lowry and one at the Barbican. We were lucky enough to get our fair share of press- 20 odd reviews of the shows and the same of preview pieces I would estimate. With the exception of one review in a North West regional (I am away from home and on dial up so can’t find the name of the paper, I’m not being snotty about regional press) not a single piece of press mentioned that Dave has no legs.

Extra-Ordinary has got its fair share of press too. Every single piece of press has mentioned Dave’s lack of legs. Most of them in a sort of punning headline.

This isn’t a snide comment of my part. I’ve been talking to Dave over the last few days about whether the press not engaging with his physicality last year is a sign of progress in the UK, a sign of political correctness, professional disrespect or a combination of all of those. I still don’t know. The punning South Africans haven’t made my mind up either way.
I do know that the one UK piece who did mention his lack of legs last year took offence at my use of Dave as grotesque freak. I still firmly believe that says more about the journalist than it says about Dave, myself or the show. But beyond that I still cant quite get any clarity on the issue.

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To that end I went along to a discussion event organised by the festival here about disability. Dave was speaking as was Gary Robson, Artistic Director of DaDaFest based in Liverpool. He immediately amused me by using the phrase “Freak Fucker” which silenced the room. It sounds an amazing festival. It made me laugh that you often find out about what is right under your nose when you are a thousand miles away from it. The Festival plays the same time as Slung Low’s pieces at the Everyman in the Autumn so I’ll be able to catch bits of it this year which is very exciting.

Also speaking was a woman who ran a disability youth theatre based in poorer areas of South Africa. Her heart was in the right place but her complaints of having to fill in forms for funding and the declaration that her mission in life was to get her “poor, sweet boys to soar like eagles through showing them love” made me bristle. Dave said it was like going back 20 years.

Which may well explain some of the above if not all.

For those that cried foul yesterday that I was being critical of the UK and looking at this festival through an optimistic condescension I note for you people that the Festival newspaper advertised the discussion event the day after it happened; only the participants, myself and one other person turned up; and they ironically didn’t signpost the access ramp to the venue so Dave and I traipsed down 3 flights of stairs. There you go- everywhere is shit.

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I caught a show tonight called Without Blood by a company called Seity.

It was a piece of multi media physical story telling- lots of third person narration, live feed video and jumping about a metal cage.
It was the story of a young white girl who is hiding in the cellar when three black men come to murder her father. Her father carried out medical experiments on black people during Apartheid. They kill him, and in sort of an accident her brother too. They torch the house. Not before one of them sees her hiding.
She survives and is passed between men (at one point won and lost at a poker game) before she tracks down the two killers of her father and murders them.
We are there when she meets the third man who saw her in the cellar 50 years before.
He thinks she has come to kill him, he is ready and accepting of his fate. But instead they make love and she finally gets the peace she wants. Returning to her original state of peace before the fire somehow as a result of lying beside him.

I am not going to pretend I understood all of this. It was in 4 languages, 3 of which I don’t speak.

But something really hit a chord that bears sharing. When the two are talking at the end of the play she asks him why he did it. He responds “We did it because we wanted a better world. We needed to have a better world. You cannot sow without first tilling the ground. This was a struggle and we had to break the ground. Thousands of children were waiting, needing us to break the ground so they could have a better world. A world where man can live and die with dignity. Without the boot of oppression on his head. You wouldn’t understand. We had to break the ground in order to sow. You wouldn’t understand.”
It was an extraordinary speech and spoke well beyond the confines of this story. Logic for the unjustifiable.
But the genuinely moving moment came seconds later when the woman asked him, “And did you get your better world. Is this it?” And an old man shook his head, put his hat on and said,”I never thought to ask myself.”
That moment was worth all the rest.

Without Blood had a whole heap of structural problems but in a strange way the muddled narrative seemed to echo eloquently the muddled nature of the whole situation and what little I understand of the transition and immediate post apartheid era. This was happening alongside the Reconciliation trials- “a part of the old struggle not the new” they called it.

This seems an infinitely better theatrical approach to history than I have seen elsewhere. This festival is almost as obsessed with the Nazis as Edinburgh is. It’s Goering a go go here for reasons that I can’t quite fathom. I shall report back if I ever do.

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