A Normal Child evokes the ‘awkwardness, contradiction and messy humanity’ around artistic representation, says Robert Reid
A Normal Child, presented at the Speakeasy at Northcote Town Hall by Slapstick Disability Plan and Ridiculusmus, is a devised work that interrogates the politics of performing disability. There are good ideas and good intentions here, but that’s as far as it goes.
It begins at the end, the opening night, and works backwards through the disastrous story of the development of the work we’re watching. It’s a kind of “the play goes wrong” genre that’s been popular lately, but here it’s used to deconstruct how the contemporary stage deals with the representation of othered experience, particularly the experience of disability, asking who should be able to play the “others”.
It’s clever, it’s funny, and it asks difficult questions that it deliberately has no answers for. A group of variously disabled performers, aided by a couple of able-bodied directors and a seconded acting student from the VCA (Jonathon Haynes), attempt to put together a show about disability. They are facilitated first by David Woods from the highly regarded UK theatre company Ridiculusmus (played by himself) and, after he steps down, they are paired with a famous international director (Brian Lipson), who bullies and dominates the actors until they no longer will work with him.
Each scene, from the “launch” of the project – introduced by one of the Speakeasy producers, Sarah (Kerith Manderson-Galvin) – back to the first workshops, opens up discussions of the ethical questions around acting and representation. There are some amusing characterisations; Lipson as the French Director, Michele, is understated and very funny, but in a work that questions who can play what, having two fictional characters played by abled actors, among a cast of performers “performing” as themselves, makes for some confusing extra dramaturgy.
It’s delivered in a postdramatic presentational style, talking directly to the audience. It’s descriptive and confessional, inverting the old “show don’t tell” expectations of theatre. Does this aesthetic make the work anymore watchable or the message any clearer? I’m not sure. Does it open the discussions to deeper reflection, or is it an artifice to make talking about a difficult thing more palatable? Is a bumbling, well-meaning postdramatic self-referential comedy about theatre makers making theatre really a useful intervention into this? Is it a kind of stylistically updated Cosi for our woke times?
I don’t know. I don’t feel changed or challenged; perhaps mildly confronted by some of the language. The most affecting moments of the play for me were the scenes played out early on in a simple dramatic style. The mother (Eva Siffs) and father (Haynes) deciding the future of their disabled child in the office of the doctor (Trevor Dunn) felt brutal and true. For all the clever stagey gimmicks employed to explore this issue, for me a simple, honest scene well-acted is more effective than all the knowing winks and nods.
Props are evocative, functional and scattered around the stage in a casually Brechtian mess. A black curtain is pulled down early to reveal chairs with bags and other stuff behind the performers, a rehearsal space in progress. Of course, moving backwards through the process, the curtain comes down and the space flips around – we audience in the seats are watching from the chairs that those chairs at the back are now playing.
In its fractured postdramatic staging of a particular conundrum, the work reminds me of Alice Birch’s Revolt She Said. Revolt Again, which was staged at the Mathouse in 2017. It doesn’t dramatise the problem, it doesn’t analyse the problem in depth: rather it evokes the spirit of the problem, conjuring its awkwardness, contradiction and messy humanity. It also reminds me of a couple of other recent mainstage performance making projects that haemorrhaged creatives through the process and almost never made it to stage which feels like a not so subtle jab at the contemporary theatre industry and its anxiety over its own wokeness.
Tongue-tied and impossible to get started, or bullying and impossible to work with. Are these the only two ways? Facilitator David or director Michele? Even David bullies his cast, intentionally luring an able bodied actor into portraying one of the disabled cast to prove a poorly articulated point about representation and accountability. An able bodied actor can’t portray an actor with a disability, David tells the cast, but a disabled actor can play an able bodied actor. This is using satire and mimicry to punch up socially, instead of punching down.
But isn’t that acting, asks one of the cast (Betty Bobbit)? Does it mean an actor who has never had children can’t play a mother because they have no lived experience of motherhood? No real answer to this is forthcoming. At the moment there isn’t really an answer; society hasn’t resolved this particular problem and it’s a big ask to demand a solution from an independent theatre project. The conclusion they eventually draw is that it’s not easy. Maybe in the future it’ll be okay again, for anybody to play anybody, but for now – as with so many other contemporary social contracts – a trust feels like it has been betrayed and it will take time for hurt feelings to mend.
The pudding here, sadly, feels a little over egged. The layers of self-referentiality are thick and the irony is layered on equally heavily. I feel like a series of postdramatic walls have been built around this work that serve only to insulate its makers, and probably its audience, from the rawness of these subjects.
While they’re handled with good humour and good will, I’m still conflicted. And perhaps this is a good thing, as it ends with a call for real reflection rather than knee jerk displays of approval – “not clapping, thinking”.
A Normal Child, presented by Ridiculusmus and Slapstick Disability Plan at the Darebin Speakeasy. Co-Created by David Woods, Jonathan Haynes, Jess Kapuscinski-Evans, Trevor Dunn, Eva Sifis, Betty Bobbitt and Jax Jacki Brown. Facilitated by David Woods and Jonathan Haynes. Dramaturgy by Anton Rivette. Sound Design by Marco Cher-Gibard. Lighting Design by Richard Vabre. Set and Costume Design by Matilda Woodroofe. Performed by Anton Rivette, Kerith Manderson-Galvin, Brian Lipson, David Woods, Jonathan Haynes, Jess Kapuscinski-Evans, Trevor Dunn, Eva Sifis, and Betty Bobbitt. Northcote Town Hall. Closed.