Three ways of staging bodily difference

I’m no theatre critic, and this is not a review. Although I’ve performed, I feel like I approach theatre (like many other things) from the outside. I’m interested in how bodies experience each other, how people come together around something ostensibly fictional which can also be excruciatingly real.

In the last few weeks, I saw three theatre pieces, each of which dealt with bodily difference – “Give me a reason to live” by Claire Cunningham, “Underneath” by Pat Kinevane / Fishamble, and “Blind” by Duda Paiva / Black Hole. Each was certainly engaging and thought-provoking, but what I found most fascinating was that they dealt with embodiment and with the theatrical encounter in very distinct ways.

I first encountered the work of Claire Cunningham through the photo on the cover of Margrit Shildrick’s “Dangerous Discourses of Disability, Subjectivity and Sexuality”, an intriguing and provocative book about how disability confronts and confounds our desire for a settled individual identity. Seeing Cunningham listed as performing as part of the Festival of Live Art – with a piece that was described as referencing Heironymous Bosch, the Nazis’ murderous program against disabled people, and the UK government’s welfare reform – seemed an opportunity too good to miss.

give me a reason

“Give me a reason to live” is difficult to describe. I was speechless at its end, but buzzing with inarticulate thoughts. Through its 45-minute duration, Cunningham moves across the performance space, and before us, using her crutches – an extended dance of abstract physical sculpture, endurance, prayer, resistance and sheer presence. The piece is wordless, apart from Cunningham’s moving rendition of a German hymn at the climax of the work, so it relies for its impact on the way a human body – in particular, a body which is marked as disabled – affects other bodies. Cunningham implicates us not by a cliched “breaking the fourth wall”, but simply by being visible. One of the most overtly exposing scenes involves her placing her crutches aside and standing, trembling with exhaustion, the house lights suddenly on us all, as she slowly looks into our eyes.

Because there is no script, and with a very minimal set design that relies on subtle shifts in lighting, “Give me a reason to live” transcends easy sloganeering or categorisation. It’s not about disability pride, not ironic self-exploitation or even theatre with a message – but nor is it intellectualised abstraction or detached and cool (I find a lot of dance or movement-based theatre leaves the particular body behind in its obsession with ideas or with “fit” bodies, though there are an increasing number of exceptions). It’s visceral, moving and generously ambiguous – which is exactly how it is when we come face to face with each other.

Where “Give me a reason to live” is wordless and implicates the audience surreptitiously, “Underneath” is 90 minutes of story, monologue and direct engagement. A solo theatre piece by Pat Kinevane (who I saw perform in Clifden, Ireland, in 2013), through the Fishamble company, “Underneath” is the story of the life of a woman who as a child is struck by lightning and severely deformed. Kinevane is a virtuosic and natural performer, who embodies the role with great tenderness and dark wit, speaking from beyond the grave. The script weaves together accounts of childhood bullying, ill-fated romantic hopes, a life lived in shadows and margins, with improvised interactions with the audience.

underneath

On one level, “Underneath” appears quite straightforward, almost banal, in what it implies – that this world is unremittingly brutal to those who look different, that ugliness is about character rather than superficialities, and (given that you never know what’s around the corner) now is the time to live and to love. But, as with “Give me a reason to live”, description is not the same as experience. To be part of the audience for “Underneath” is to be confronted with human vulnerability – not just the character Kinevane embodies, but our own.  The audience interaction is certainly unsettling, very direct, but it always seems genuinely democratic, leavened with humour and compassion.

For the last work, Duda Paiva’s “Blind”, I have a confession to make. Paiva came to see a Quippings performance I was in in 2014, and seemed inspired by it. But I was unnerved when I saw a promo for his new work. He had a hump attached to his back, as well as lumps on other parts of his body. Was this ‘cripping up’? Had my own unusual embodiment been appropriated?

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In my sensitivity, I should have known, or at least allowed for the possibility, that there is more to a person than meets the eye. Disability takes innumerable forms, sometimes invisible – so that what might at first seem to be projection is in fact solidarity. As a child, Paiva experienced a rare condition which caused painful lumps to grow on his body, including on the inside of his eyelids, which risked his eyesight.  “Blind” turns this experience into a surreal and metaphorical exploration of the desire for healing and self-acceptance.

The piece begins wryly, Paiva sitting among the audience, asking people why they are here also, in this waiting room – what physical problem do they hope ‘madam’ will be able to solve for them? The audience engagement is bold, funny and (where Paiva experiences some reluctance) almost yet not quite intrusive, a risk he clearly loves taking. This aspect of “Blind” is profound in its simplicity and potential resonance. Theatre itself is presented as ritual, as a kind of collaborative public medicine – and all of us are broken or incomplete.

But “Blind” is a show of two realms – the predominant one archetypal, internal and personal. From out of Paiva’s deformities, three puppets emerge – which seem to represent beauty, ugliness and vulnerability. It’s an affecting and resonant conceit. Yet, due to the nature of this metaphorical treatment, the piece implies that these qualities exist in the body itself, rather than in the space between bodies – in the complex weave of physical form, interpersonal interaction and cultural myth.

The show also has a complicated relationship to normalisation. In a series of compelling and highly skilled scenes, ugliness is exposed and wrestled with, but this only happens because the character’s lumps have been excised. By attaching the physical characteristic so strongly to the metaphor, particularly an exaggerated form, “Blind” runs the risk of unwittingly portraying human variability as something to be transcended (whereas I suspect Paiva intends to depict an embrace of the real, vulnerable body).

My ambivalence, of course, only underlines the fact that “Blind” is a thought-provoking piece. I’m intrigued to imagine what Paiva will do next. I wonder how the two realms of “Blind” might be brought together – the collective ritual of theatre and the particular autobiography, the social model of disability with the subjective experience of impairment, and the desire to be well with the acknowledgement of inevitable failure.

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