What does it mean to be alive? Graeae Theatre ask in their new production The Limbless Knight - performed at Greenwich and Docklands Festival 21- 23 June. Colin Hambrook critiques the latest offering from one of the UKs foremost disability theatre companies
The performance began with short testimonies from the audience asserting human rights articles on the right for all children to play and to have an education. And so the play moves into the realm of children's song. We'll all be merry and bright the cast sing, embedding a growing number of impairments within the rhyme, parodying the stereotype that disabled people will always smile nicely and be grateful.
We're in a fairytale place where Sophie Partridge as the Queen asks favours of her subjects who swear allegiance to her and lose their legs in battle, fighting in her name. She commands the stage filling it with her presence through a series of speeches questioning where the will for all human beings to be free in dignity and rights has gone? She asks how the public and political perception of disabled people has changed so quickly from being heroes to being a costly burden?
As she is slowly raised up inside her scaffold tower the limbless knights come to the fore, climbing a series of sway poles set stage left and right, creating a spectacle of aerial acrobatics. Graeae used sway poles as a theatrical device in the highly compelling story of a drowning world 'Against The Tide' and in 2012's pretty production 'The Garden'. However the attempt here to use the poles within the narrative added further layers which obfuscated the intention of the piece to ask questions of its audience.
A tentative link to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was intended, but lacked cohesion. Instead of the Augurs of Spring and an Evocation of the Ancestors, we get two handmaidens prannying about in the air, in conflict with a couple of limbless knights. Was the implication that the handmaidens were the queens' PAs? What they were doing fighting in the air? Why the argument? The Limbless Knight had no clear cut middle or end, leaving a question around what was the most important story the tale of rights reignited was trying to tell?
The Queens' dress is lowered from the scaffold tower and folded as it would have been done in a military funeral. But this reference was only clear in the audio-description provided for the piece. The fictional grey setting was used as a device for connecting with the personal testimonies of several disabled ex-servicemen. It could have been the most riveting part of the play, but the fragmenting of any dramatic tension and the lack of weaving those testimonies into the script meant the audience was left struggling to understand what was going on as the soldiers came centre-stage to deliver their short monologues.
At the beginning of June 2103 a headline in The Independent reported that "thousands of disabled ex-servicemen are being pushed to the breadline after being judged fit for work by the government-appointed company Atos." The Limbless Knight with its allusion to the current plight of the dispossession of disabled people, could have achieved so much more.
There was a missed opportunity for telling it like it is. Bravo 22 Company's production of The Two Worlds of Charlie F,
The play was dedicated to the life and memory of Paul Burns - one of the six disabled ex-servicemen who had been working with Graeae as a member of the cast and co-creator of the show. His very recent, untimely death was undoubtedly a terrible blow for all involved in the production. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been bringing the production to stage in the light of the sadness of Paul's demise. His work with Graeae was not in vain. As critical as I've been in considering the aesthetic of 'The Limbless Knight'
In terms of getting across how much societies attitudes need to change; how 'invalid' disabled people are in a society that increasingly looks at the monetary cost, rather the real value of our contribution, the play successfully eschewed a message of how wonderful life is - beyond the tragic but brave sentiments that muddy our representation. My ten year old daughter got it. Although she was equally confused by what was happening on stage, in answer to the question 'What does it mean to be alive?' she responded: "It's easy for those with money and power and who make all the rules."
The Limbless Knight is being staged in The Island Gardens, Greenwich 21-23 June. Please go to DAOs events listings pages for further details.