Take Up Thy Bed and Walk

Presented by Vitalstatistix
Reviewed Thursday 26th October 2012

Gaelle Mellis is a name well known to Adelaide audiences for her many and diverse superb set designs. She has, of course, produced a great design for this production as well. This is only one of the strings to her artistic bow and in this production we get to see what a fine creator of new work and an insightful director she is. This is a collaborative work involving a large team, especially the four young women who appear in the piece, whom she refers to as her “perfectly imperfect performers”.

In 2001 Lois Keith’s book Take Up Thy Bed and Walk: Death, Disability and Cure in Classic Fiction for Girls was published and it was that book, that Mellis found and read while overseas, that was the catalyst for this production. Keith examines how disabled women are portrayed and dealt with in 19th and early 20th Century fiction for girls, asserting that the life of a disabled person is not a full life and that, through their own effort and willpower, they can cure themselves.

She analyses five ideas that are expressed in those novels: "(1) there is nothing good about being disabled; (2) disabled people have to learn the same qualities of submissive behaviour that women have always had to learn: patience, cheerfulness and making the best of things; (3) impairment can be a punishment for bad behaviour, for evil thoughts, for not being a good enough person; (4) although disabled people should be pitied rather than punished, they can never be accepted; and (5) the impairment is curable. If you want to enough, if you love yourself enough (but not more than you love others), if you believe in God enough, you will be cured."

It is easy to accuse Victorians of ignorance, prejudice, fear, and discrimination, but how far have we really come? Certainly, we no longer universally accuse people with a disability of being punished for some fault of their own, nor do we expect them to cure themselves by simply changing their thinking and behaviour. There still some, though, who would agree with some of this to a certain degree.

As Mellis points out, about a quarter of the world’s population have some degree of some form of disability or impairment. Some are immediately noticeable, others do not show, some we completely overlook because they are so common and artificially corrected. If it was not for spectacles and contact lenses and a good many of us would be classed as visually impaired; we would be disabled. Why is that quite acceptable and ignored, yet a totally blind person is often avoided as being too hard to deal with? Many wear a hearing aid to correct a hearing loss, and apparently that is fine, but a totally deaf person is treated differently. Is this fair? Is this reasonable? It is definitely not acceptable. A person with a pronounced limp, or needing to use a walking stick is included, but a wheelchair or walking frame seems to be a problem for the fully physically able people to cope with.

This is a beautiful production, presented by four beautiful young ladies, with a fifth who is part performer and part Auslan interpreter, not standing to one side interpreting, but well integrated into the performance. The beauty flows from these people, surrounding and being absorbed by the audience. There were tears shed by a number of those watching. I defy anybody to leave this performance without a greater awareness of how little real difference there is, deep down, between those with a disability and those without, beyond that one difference that gets them labelled disabled. It will also change the poor attitudes of the ignorant and prejudiced.

We begin by being taken back to Victorian times, small groups being escorted into the performance space at short intervals by a performer. Dimly lit, we find ourselves in a dormitory, five white metal frame beds spaced around the area, some inhabited by those not doing the escorting. It is somewhere between an interactive theatre experience and an art installation. The people in the beds engage us, partly with prepared information, partly in conversation. They wear white linen nightgowns, night time garments of the era. There is much to see and hear, but that you will need to go and do yourself. It was a wonderful start to the event that involved everybody, and had us engaged and captivated before we even moved to the seating area, and the next stage of the performance commenced.

Over the next eighty minutes we got to know the performers, learned a lot about them, their lives, their loves, their fears, their hopes, their marvellous senses of humour, their sadness and, possibly a surprise to some people, just how much they were just like everybody else. This performance is generous, inviting, moving, touching, heart-warming and extremely inclusive. Aside from an Auslan interpreter there were screens on which text appeared, there was recorded dialogue, and the music had plenty of bass, which could be felt by those who could not hear.

Performers, Michelle Ryan, Emma J Hawkins, Kyra Kimpton, and Jo Dunbar, with the help of Auslan interpreter, Gerry Shearim, are truly magnificent. Each brings significant and varied performing experience and expertise to this production and together they weave a spellbinding web of stories, relationships and interactions that take us forward through time.

There is a triumphal rendition of a provocative song that was written for the International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981, and that was then banned by the BBC. It was actually written by a disabled person, Ian Dury, and recorded by his group, Ian Dury and The Blockheads.  That song, Spasticus Autisticus, has been adopted as an anthem by and for disabled people.

A sizeable team worked together to create this piece, with Gaelle Mellis working closely with the performers as well as Hilary Bell, Ingrid Voorendt, and Lara Torr (audio description). The contributions from the members of this large group have merged to result in a hugely important, utterly entrancing, and empowering piece of multimedia, multidiscipline, art, theatre, and dance that shares openly and generously much that has taken the performers into difficult and painful places, and they have willingly done this for you, the audience. Accept what is being offered to you so warmly.

The price of a ticket may be measured in dollars, but the performance is priceless. Don’t waste a moment booking for this wonderful production.

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Arts Editor, Glam Adelaide.

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Venue: Waterside, 11 Nile Street, Port Adelaide
Season: to 10th November 2012
Duration: 80mins (no interval)
Tickets: Adults $32/Conc $26/Fringe Benefits $24
Bookings: BASS 131 246 or online here

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