Last Saturday 21st July, Jess Thom starred in the BBC Two documentary ‘Me, My Mouth and I’ – a film, co-produced by Touretteshero and Sunshine, shown as part of BBC TWO’s Performance Live strand (a partnership between BBC Arts, Arts Council England and Battersea Arts Centre). “Make Sure you pay attention! You won’t have seen anything like this before…” says Russell Howard, introducing Jess Thom at the beginning of the broadcast. Review by Emma Robdale
Me, My Mouth and I is about Jess Thom’s extraordinary performance of the character Mouth in Samuel Beckett’s one person play ‘Not I’, but it is also about so much more: exploring why the monologue resonates so strongly with the performers’ experience of disability.
“I didn’t feel as if my experience as a woman with Tourette’s was being represented – and how funny, or challenging or intriguing or surreal that could be.”
The first time Jess went to a theatre she was asked to move because her unintentional outbursts were said to be disrupting the performance. She watched the rest of the performance from a sound-proof area:
“I felt totally humiliated. I promised myself I wouldn’t set foot in a theatre again.”
Thankfully this is a promise she later broke when deciding to create a specific place for herself on stage where she could address the world,
“As the first disabled artist to perform this play in-front of a nationwide audience I’ll be asking the audience to radically reconsider issues of disability representation and social exclusion in the arts and also in wider society.”
Beckett’s ‘Not I’ is a short dramatic monologue performed by the ‘character’ mouth. Mouth is a seventy-year old woman who rapidly reflects on trauma caused by her surrounding society, but all that can be seen of her are a pair of lips surrounded by darkness.
“Disability is the lived experiences of barriers. Mouth describes a life which has faced repeated barriers. People who have a range of very diverse impairments often have very similar experiences of being excluded.”
The monologue involves a lot of repetition and parts can be very hard to comprehend, Jess relates to this strongly because of her Tourette’s syndrome. She also felt as if she could relate to the character’s feeling of disembodiment.
At times Jess has ticks, which is common with people who have Tourette’s Syndrome. They can cause Jess’s whole body to convulse so that she is not in control of her arms legs or voice. Jess stresses that this is only one element of her disability,
“People presume that because I’m a wheelchair user, because I have Tourette’s Syndrome, because I have tics, I must automatically have a horrible life. And I don’t! I have a brilliant life!”
Jess is co-founder of Touretteshero, which is an organisation that ‘celebrates the humour and creativity of Tourette’s Syndrome’ The Touretteshero team have worked with Jess to produce‘Not I’.
To strengthen her performance Jess sought out advice from two experts on the works of Beckett, Rosemary Pountney, who at one time played Mouth herself, and Dr Derval Tubridy. Tubridy discussed the narrative of Mouth… “The distinctive thing about the woman in ‘Not I’ is that she speaks without necessarily being in control of her speech or intending to speak. It’s a steady stream pouring out.” She questioned Jess how this related to her and her understanding of the play?
“Like a sausage dog in a masturbating tortoise… Urm… Maybe not quite like that. I totally relate to the idea of not being able to recognise your voice.”
Jess also gleaned advice for her performance from the MC Rodney P. Hip-hop has traditionally given a voice to marginalized or excluded communities, and Jess wanted advice on not only how to speak at rapid speed, but also to have the confidence to face an audience with challenging material. His advice was if you have a message, to go ahead and say it and not worry about the reception,
“If I expect a bad reception I go out with my armour plates up!”
The actor and comedian Liz Carr, who is also a wheelchair user, supported Jess’s performance. They met in the unusual location of two dustbins. Jess explained how it was metaphor for how people with disability often must work their way up from the bottom, and it also alluded to another play by Beckett, ‘Endgame’ where two characters tell their story from within dustbins. Jess wanted her performance to be able to connect to as many different disability-based communities as possible,
“By claiming Mouth as a disabled character and understanding her experiences from that perspective, I hope to change assumptions about who can perform certain roles and whose stories they tell by using broader stories to present different types of performance. Biscuit, please!”
She also sought out Jessy Parrot a PhD student, also a wheelchair user. Parrot’s area of study is disability casting and representation. They spoke passionately about how disabled people need to be at the front of representation,
“There is a perception that presenting disability is just about presenting impairment. Eddie Redmayne pretending to be Stephen Hawkins is not a representation of disability. I think disabled people will naturally bring their experiences to roles they undertake, and you will get a broader reflection than just mimicry.”
Jess says the social model of disability is all about barriers; her performance is about removing them. It was important for the play to be as accessible as possible.
“Isolation isn’t inevitable because you have a disability. Isolation is something that happens when you don’t have the right support. Isolation is something that we do to people. This performance is all about creating space to build communities.”
Traditionally ‘Not I’ has a second character, The Auditor, who mimes movements of ‘helpless compassion’. Jess decided that this role could be taken on by someone from the BSL community; They translate the whole performance, including any additions that Jess’s Tourette’s Syndrome adds.
Unlike traditional renditions of ‘Not I’ Jess’s body is not held down to keep it still, enabling just the mouth to move; this is so that she is free to tick. She comments that her ticking can sometimes lessen the verbal element of her Tourette’s Syndrome.
The whole performance is twelve minutes long. It is followed by a discussion section in which the audience are free to ask questions. Jess says, “Every conversation has the potential to create change.” At the end, in honour of Mouth she invited the audience to shout out about their own stresses so that they became one united voice.
“It’s not about me doing the perfect performance… the success is about doing Mouth justice and people being able to connect with her story.”