As part of its lockdown programme ‘Crips Without Constraints’, Graeae Theatre Company is releasing weekly monologues in collaboration with playwright and Graeae patron Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and The Cursed Child – Sonia Freedman, His Dark Materials BBC/HBO, Let The Right One In – National Theatre of Scotland/ Royal Court). The monologues are written Deaf and disabled writers and performed by a different Deaf and disabled actors. Kate Lovell reviews the first two iterations: Flesh by Anita Kelly and When We Got Sick by Jamie Hale.
Streamed theatre is booming with dozens of venues presenting previously filmed productions for our viewing pleasure whilst we remain in lockdown. It is somewhat hit and miss as to whether these streamed shows have access in the form of audio description or captions, so it is not always possible for the Deaf and disabled community to enjoy these productions. Many in the industry are tirelessly lobbying for better access options for digital events and there are some companies who are excelling with their access offers. It’s raised the age-old adage of nothing about us without us: theatres need to connect with their disabled audiences.
Graeae, of course, have ensured that access is embedded within their online offerings, served to us under the banner of Crips Without Constraints. They’ve gone one step further than putting previous productions on their website and commissioned a series of monologues by disabled writers, all to be performed by disabled actors, released once a week on Graeae’s YouTube channel. The first two to be released are Flesh by Anita Kelly and When We Got Sick by Jamie Hale and both take place in the now, responding to lockdown and the coronavirus crisis, making them particularly enlivening to experience.
Flesh is a powerhouse performance from Francesca Mills: we get up close and personal with Zoe who has hijacked her flatmate’s fitness vlog in a desperate attempt to connect with the outside world whilst in lockdown. Zoe declares to the vlog followers that it has been 638 hours since her last sexual encounter with another person. She’s uncomfortably close to the camera as she reveals explicit details about her sexual penchants and invites someone – anyone – to flirt with her. There’s a wildness in her eyes and her energy is feverish as she continually darts a look towards the bedroom door, on the lookout for her flatmate’s return.
Zoe is at first intimidating and, even revolting, in her overly candid revelations, making the audience cringe with “too much information” – she is emboldened by the thrill of being seen but being unable to see. There are flashes of humanity amidst the almost aggressive sexual posturing: there is a frantic need for the real-life closeness of another human being, to feel the warmth of flesh on flesh.
This desire for intimacy carries through into Hale’s monologue, performed by Simon Startin with quiet sensitivity, as the unnamed male protagonist recalls his past lover, now long dead. The coronavirus crisis has unearthed memories of his twenties spent caring for his lover who has contracted AIDS. He laments at the lack of care shown for those afflicted by the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s outside of the tight-knit community of people that supported one another through it.
Hale astutely raises the spectre of the ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ sick, an all-too-real and painfully live issue in the disabled community, who live in fear of being deprioritised for treatment in an over-stretched NHS due to nothing more than the fact of their impairment. Hale’s protagonist is remembering the stigma attached to being HIV positive, and the lack of will to research medications or find adequate cures: it was the disease of gay men, and no one cared enough.
Startin draws the audience in with his intimate sincerity, recounting his devotion to his terminally ill lover, staying indoors with him, in their own private lockdown, to prevent contracting a cold or cough that could have killed him. He describes how “the luxury of skin was better than any medication” – their togetherness is what buoys them through their enforced isolation. Hale manages to delicately travel the line between raising urgent social ills taking place during this crisis, particularly in relation to the treatment of disabled people, callously labelled “the vulnerable”, but whilst also reminding us of the hope and resilience that the human spirit is capable of under such duress. It’s a tender and heart-breaking few minutes which will resonate with all of us – be ready and armed with tissues for this watch.
A line from the monologue that is particularly affecting is the protagonist’s observation that while we remain fastened in our four walls “the blossom’s blooming on the trees just for itself”. These few words encapsulate so much: the pandemic is allowing nature and the planet to heal while humans are confined and unable to wreak their havoc. It is a crucial reminder that the flowers grow, the animals roam and the blossom sings for its own self. There’s time now, for us to find a renewed respect for the earth we have so abused: we do not want to return to business as usual. A new normal is vital.