AceDome, Edinburgh Fringe Festival
Reviewed by Ju Gosling
I went to see ‘Normality’ labouring under two misconceptions: first, that it was a performance by disabled people; and second, that the themes within it had relevance to my own ‘Abnormal’ exhibition (www.scientificmodelofdisability.co.uk), which was being shown elsewhere on the Fringe as part of a national tour funded by the Wellcome Trust. In these beliefs I had been encouraged by ‘Normality’’s Fringe programme listing, which stated:
“Boy (cripple) meets girl (quirky) as this hit South African play makes its international debut. Alex’s journey details the perils of shopping, the healing power of chocolate milkshake and the fact that ‘normal’ is just a setting on the drier…”
I had also been told by various non-disabled people (none of whom I knew well, which was my first mistake) that it was a “must see” for me and that it had “brought tears to their eyes” (which should have set off alarm bells, but didn’t).
In fact, ‘Normality’ wasn’t even a play in the accepted sense, since it was a one-man, semi-musical show. And rather than being a Disability Arts performance, it was written and performed by non-disabled people. However, my first inkling of this came only when the performer, Pedro Kruger, bounded on to the stage for the first time before adopting what purported to be the body posture of a character who had lived since infancy with rheumatoid arthritis.
From then on in, Kruger would move in and out of this posture depending on whether or not he was adopting the voice of the protagonist, a disabled man on a journey towards self-acceptance — the main signifier of this character was always a twisted body and fingers. However, whenever a song came along Kruger leapt to his keyboard and left his twisted posture behind him, whether or not the song was written in the voice of the protagonist. All of this added up to a performance that could more accurately be classed as impersonation than anything else.
(Bizarrely, the image on the flyer resembled a man with advanced AIDS or some other wasting disease rather than someone with arthritis, where weight gain is often an issue because of a lifetime of steroid treatment and where growth may be restricted. The white-on-black flyer for ‘Normality’, with touches of blood-red in the typography, shows a tall, almost skeletal, digitally manipulated figure with receding hair, apparently pinching the loose skin over his heart with his right hand as he looks wistfully towards the title of the play. The typography appears to be throwing a dim light on him, but he is otherwise surrounded by darkness. And yes, this should also have given me a clue about what I was about to see – had I not used my own body on the postcard that accompanies ‘Abnormal’, and assumed that in some way Kruger had used his as well, rather than the flyer image bearing no overt relationship to the production whatsoever.)
From the start of the show, it was underlined that the protagonist had extreme difficulty in carrying out ‘normal’ tasks. The performance opened with Kruger pretending to have great difficulty in putting on his sock using a hook at the end of a pole. I was instantly reminded of Mat Fraser in ‘Seal Boy: Freak’, where he discusses the inclusion of ‘ordinary’ tasks within the traditional freak show performance. In repeating these tasks himself – dressing, shaving and so on – Fraser recognizes that his audience too wonders how he accomplishes these things off-stage.
Critically, Fraser plays with the fact that the disabled body is seen as being a public body, always on display and expected to perform for non-disabled people’s curiosity on demand. By including normally nondescript daily tasks within ‘Seal Boy: Freak’, and so repeating the freak show content, the modern audience is (gently) forced to ask themselves hard questions about their attitude towards and expectations of bodies that are ‘different’, and in particular about their voyeurism. (Voyeurism is a repeated theme in Fraser’s work.) In sharp contrast, Kruger’s performance played to the audience’s voyeurism in an almost pornographic way, confirming their right to watch and (falsely, as with pornography) claiming to satisfy their desire to see for themselves how people with arthritis put their socks on.
Unsurprisingly, the ‘plot’ consisted of a procession of clichés and stereotypes. Rather than taking Pride in himself, the character is unhappy with who he is and so regularly dreams of being non-disabled. (The writer/producer, Hennie Van Greunen, later wrote to me that he had never met a disabled person who did not wish to be non-disabled.) The character sees his impairment as the result of being cursed by the Devil; he is a loser in the ‘Wheel of Misfortune’ – or possibly he really has been cursed by the Devil, it was never entirely clear to me. (Kruger signified his devilishness by wearing the type of plastic horns that I am more used to seeing on the local children when they ‘trick or treat’ on Halloween.) And at the beginning of his ‘journey’ (could we possibly ban the use of this term soon) the character has never had a sexual relationship — nor does he seem to have had many friends — although he has gone out shopping regularly with his aunt.
(This was where the ‘perils of shopping’ came in; the difficulty in parking because of Blue Badge abuse. The audience was continually instructed in how disabled people’s lives are hard enough already without taking up our parking spaces. I hope I was not the only audience member to wonder just how many disabled people in South Africa really have this problem, given how few of the majority Black population actually own cars there.)
However, eventually — and yes, you probably have guessed the ending already, dear reader – the character learns to accept himself through the actions of a non-disabled person, a girl who asks him out and then starts a relationship with him. At this point we learn that the character’s social problems were really his own fault – he was just another bitter crip with a chip – and a change in his attitude is all that has actually been needed to make his life better. Following this, he triumphs over the tragedy of his disability and leads a more ‘normal’, happier life.
Along with this collection of stereotypes and clichés, there were aspects of this show that made it particularly unpleasant. First, the character worked in an organization for people with HIV – not to assist them through the maze of benefit claims and other crip services and to act as a positive role model, but to show them that they are fortunate because they have previously been non-disabled.
Second, the character continually claimed to represent the wider experiences and viewpoints of disabled people, by the repeated use of the phrase ‘us crips’. Many non-disabled people who had seen the show seemed to believe from this that the writer and/or performer was himself disabled in some way, which reinforced their acceptance of his message.
It was noticeable that the script had clearly taken in a significant amount of material from disabled people’s own words, though – although the lack of authenticity in the way that these quotes were cobbled together to fulfill the intention of the writer showed through. For example, despite the content of special school curricula across the globe, the protagonist had never been swimming until he met his girlfriend, nor had he felt the sun on his back as he had been too embarrassed to take his shirt off (even in private?).
Away from the theatre, Van Greunen has claimed complete authenticity for the script by repeatedly stating that the show is based on the life-story of his sister – a woman who, like the other disabled people whose experiences clearly contributed to the show, remained unnamed and un-thanked in the script, the curtain calls, the flyer and all of the other publicity material. Instead, the advertising copy relates wholly to the production – “a tour de force” “a perfect vehicle” “the show on everybody’s lips” – and the performance – “dynamic” and “versatile” i.e. to Kruger and Van Greunen. It is hard to envisage another situation where it would be considered acceptable and unremarkable NOT to offer any form of credit or thanks to the people whose lives were purported to form the basis of the story.
Of course, in actual fact the show did not in any way represent the reality of a disabled woman’s life – not least because the protagonist was a man. Few would disagree that, for whatever reason, male sexuality and female sexuality are very different, as are our experiences of work, education and family relationships. Rather, the dramatic arc represented a non-disabled person’s fantasy of what a disabled man’s life is like, rehashing every tired old cliché without comment or criticism. Despite this being the 21st century, the script appeared uninfluenced by any reading about the Social Model of Disability, or apparently any contact with scripts/videos of shows about disabled people’s lives by disabled writers and performers ourselves (Fraser, Nabil Shaban, Julie McNamara, Penny Pepper et al). Nathan Young and Robert Softley’s A Gay Transsexual Love Story as told to the Ticket Collector at Alton Towers also shows what can be achieved with a genuine collaboration with a non-disabled writer.
Would this performer and writer consider it acceptable to black up and purport to represent Black South Africans’ lives, taking away their jobs in the process and not even thanking them for providing the material? Obviously not. One wonders if Van Greunen ever considered working with a disabled actor/performer, but suspects not as he regards any equation of blacking up with cripping up as being “insulting, ignorant … racist and illogical”. “The idea that only … disabled people [can] play disabled people, is tired and senseless.” In fact, the idea that disabled people can play disabled characters is revolutionary: the status quo remains that disabled people are almost always represented by non-disabled performers, and even most disabled people still expect this to be the case.
‘Normality’, in any case, appears to have gone uncriticised at home, and is now being used within disability awareness courses for South African corporations. One can imagine just how much they love it: no reference to poverty, war, pollution and the lack of access to affordable and appropriate healthcare as being the main causes of disability — and therefore no requirement for them to take responsibility and to instigate changes; and no requirement for them to change their personal behaviour other than to be more ‘considerate’ when it comes to parking their cars. And, of course, none of the difficulties involved in hosting a performance by disabled people, who will require an accessible venue in the first place and who will almost certainly be more expensive because of the need for a larger support crew – not to mention the likelihood of their message being far more challenging.
Van Greunen, however, clearly feels that he can claim the moral high ground, urging the audience as we left to spread the word about the play (I am aiming to fulfill his request here to the best of my ability) and so to “change people’s lives”. He later complained that I had not shown sufficient respect for the play by giving my assistance dog a drink halfway through when she became overheated in the very hot and airless conditions in the studio. I suspect that the presence of any disabled people who were unable to remain in hushed silence throughout (unless instructed by the script to laugh) would have been extremely unwelcome. The intended audience was, after all, non-disabled; and Van Greunen clearly felt that non-disabled people were best off deciding how disabled people’s lives were represented and carrying out this representation for us, without any of the noise and inconvenience – and oppositional viewpoints - that disabled people ourselves may create.
Overall, ‘Normality’ turned out to be an appropriate title for this show, if not for the reason that Van Greunen intended. Kruger clearly expected to get multiple curtain calls each time he performed – which he certainly did when we saw it, bounding on each time from the side of the stage to receive the applause that both he and Van Greunen obviously felt was his due. As with the South African corporations, the message that the show provides is obviously extremely welcome to audiences in its comforting conservatism and its reinforcement of the messages of centuries; the ‘change’ it inspires is to put back the cause of disability rights 20 years. Only some of ‘us crips’ hated it.
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