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Nabil Shaban: The First To Go - disability arts online
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26 May 2008

Robert Softely reviews a production of Nabil Shaban's controversial and hard-hitting play, which looks at the Nazis' plan to create a master race and its implications for disabled people


Front cover of play by Nabil Shaban First to Go

Front cover of play by Nabil Shaban First to Go

Renowned disabled performer, writer and activist Nabil Shaban has spent 10 years taking this show from concept to realisation, and at more than three hours long, it can easily be described as an epic in many ways. The story follows three inmates of one of first Nazi sanatoriums for disabled people, showing how they survived from day to day and the imaginative devices they used to cope and save themselves from completely giving up hope. They tell each other an ongoing story of heroes and villains, one that happens to closely match the true actions of Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, a disabled Nazi officer who tried to assassinate Hitler. Without giving too much away, it is clear that the story isn’t going to be uplifting and, without being trivial, we all know what happens in the end.

Close to the start of the production we’re faced with three naked disabled people on stage. Audience reaction to this was palpable at the back of the stalls – clearly they knew they shouldn’t find this any more offensive than if the actors were non-disabled, yet they clearly did. The performances for the rest of the show were consistently strong – there certainly wasn’t the sense of a weak link in the cast. Nabil Shaban, Robyn Hunt and Alan Clay kept the strength of the disabled inmates believable throughout and newcomer Nick Field, as our hero Claus, gave a bold, engaging performance.

For me the problems with the play related to what didn’t happen. During the first act there’s very little narrative action – we learn about the various characters almost exclusively through direct address to the audience. There is no real dramatic tension to be felt and, as such, when things end up as they do, it’s difficult to truly feel sympathetic or regretful. To put this very simply, the play is just too long and doesn’t ‘do’ enough.

However, my main gripe with it is that I can’t see what it could achieve in 2008. The actions of the Nazis were so horrendous and their treatment of disabled people (as well as Jews, gay people and others) so incomprehensible that a modern-day audience can easily distance itself from the events of the Second World War and deny any responsibility. At one point during the show the idea of desiring a disabled baby to maintain a diverse society is mentioned, but this isn’t sufficiently explored in a way that would force people to question their own belief systems. I believe we have a lot to learn from the Nazis' treatment of disabled people, and there’s much discussion to be had of the fact that society is, even today, more 'understanding' of euthanasia when disabled people are involved, but unless we’re forced to question how far things have come since 1933, we can easily dismiss this subject to the history books.