EN Oh No!

Content Warning: This post includes discussion of ableism within theatre, negative depictions of mobility aid use by non-mobility aid users, and quotes from other sources that include ableist language and slurs.

Ten years ago this summer we took our first show Backstage In Biscuit Land to the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh. Since then, we’ve focused a lot of energy on making theatre more accessible to disabled people – as audience, performers, and staff. We’ve travelled the world campaigning for relaxed performances, accessibility and disability justice and we’ve created tools and approaches to help arts organisations, directors and performers make their work more authentic and accessible.

As a disabled performer myself I’ve engaged deeply with the complex issues surrounding how disabled people are portrayed on stage and screen, and who gets to play these roles. We’ve approached this work with energy and enthusiasm and the desire to change the ableist thinking that underpins a lot of creative practice around the world. At times this has felt like a battle, but for years it felt like we were making steady, albeit slow, progress. Then the pandemic happened and somehow everything changed. In broad strokes venues now seem far less interested in access and theatre companies seem to have forgotten everything they were learning about authentic casting. The ongoing controversy at the Globe surrounding Richard III is a perfect case in point.

It’s hard to describe how exhausting it is having to engage with these deeply problematic issues. I’m trying to run a company, be a disabled artist and have a social life, yet I’m spending an increasing amount of time calling out alarmingly wilful ableism and supporting other disabled creatives who are experiencing more challenges than ever before.

As part of our access offer we’ve developed Sonic Stories – info graphics designed to help increase audience understanding of the auditory experience of a performance.

A sonic story for the first act of Midsummer Nights Dream made for the Royal Shakespeare Company. It is an info-graphic that shows the loud and quieter moments of the performance represented through a bright yellow sound wave that goes horizontally across the image. The sound wave is annotated with information that links what’s happening sonically to what is happening on stage. This white text on a dark forest green background includes things like: “Brief electronic zaps as Oberon shouts at Titania” or “Laughter as Bottom sings and Titania wakes.” Sonic stories are access documents that aim to help those with sensory sensitivities understand and navigate performances.

We’ve produced Sonic Stories for lots of venues and recently we’ve been supporting the English National Opera with theirs. It’s always encouraging when a venue makes a commitment to make their work more accessible and we’re always happy to help because we believe that art is for everyone. However, the latest show at the ENO which opens today has presented us with a big dilemma. Simon McBurney’s restaged production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which claims to be “an enchanted journey into the heart of love” feels more like a celebration of flagrant, unimaginative ableism and normative supremacy. Rainelle Krause who plays the “manipulative Queen of Night” joins a long and troubling list of non-disabled performers such as Eddie Redmayne, Edward Norton and Sam Claflin who have been applauded for mimicking disability in the name of entertainment.

A bright red circle with the text Oh No written in bold white, the hand drawn font looks similar to that used by English National Opera (ENO)In an interview with Stuart Jeffries from 2013, when asked why the Queen of the Night is portrayed as a wheelchair user, director Simon McBurney says:

“She says she’s losing her power. But then she goes on to sing one of the most demanding arias in opera. So if we’re to treat what she says seriously, the question becomes how do we physically show her growing powerlessness? I thought the wheelchair would do that. By the end of the opera, she can hardly move.”

Let that sink in for a moment.

Here we are, nearly quarter of the way through the 21st century and we still have entitled theatre makers who are happy to use impairment as sloppy shorthand for corruption, manipulation, and powerlessness without batting their (apparently) non-disabled eyelids. This is completely at odds with how wheelchair users, myself included, think about our chairs. For me, my wheelchair is a symbol of freedom, independence, and autonomy, as well as an elegant extension of my own body.

Negative representations of disability like this have real world consequences for everyone, those born with a mobility impairment or the those who will acquire one at some stage in their life. Internalised ableism isn’t natural, it’s something we learn over time, and productions like this are the insidious teachers.

But while I find this sickening, I’m more concerned by how this production has been received by the press. Clive Paget from the Guardian who thinks this spectacle is a “peach of wit, wisdom and laughs” seems particularly amused by Rainelle Krause who he describes as a “demented dalek-like Queen of the Night.”

Let that sink in for a moment.

These are the building blocks of ableism – a character is disabled to highlight their shortcomings and moral bankruptcy, which then gives the greenlight to critics to pile on their own prejudices for everyone to read. What is anyone, disabled or non-disabled, supposed to make of this onslaught?

After we had a run in with The Guardian in 2016 when one of their journalists wrote about Kanye West having a “reputation for spazzing out like a puppy” former editor Chris Elliott assured readers that they have a rigorous language guide on disability and neurodivergence: “The Guardian’s style guide covers a lot of ground and is being constantly updated.” It’s unclear to me how ‘demented daleks’ could possibly fit into this.

On the same day as Clive Paget’s review, disabled journalist Frances Ryan wrote a thoughtful and brilliant piece about the complex issue of assisted suicide in the same publication, which really makes me wonder about their editorial consistency and ethos.

Sadly, the Guardian is far from alone in this. Of the four current reviews I’ve found for this show (that aren’t behind a paywall), all four included ableist language. The Guardian, Opera Today, The Arts Desk and Slipped Disk need to urgently reflect on how they use language relating to disability, and why none of their reviewers thought to question the use of a wheelchair as a metaphor for powerlessness.

It’s one thing for a director to take their own ignorant assumptions about disability and present them crudely on stage, but what stung me most was seeing this work receive glowing, uncritical, multi-star reviews across the arts press. Thankfully Morgan Skolnik offers a much more thoughtful and nuanced critique of disability in this production in The Theatre Times.

So, here’s our dilemma, do we support the ENO with their important work around making their productions more accessible to disabled people, or do we distance ourselves because we’re sickened by the ableism that still finds its way onto their stage?

For us, the answer is clear. We’re not in the business of cultural curation, of deciding what work is and isn’t made accessible to disabled people. If we choose to see The Magic Flute, that decision is ours to make, and we deserve the access documents to help us. It would be far worse to exclude disabled people from tasteless and outdated productions like this, than to let non-disabled people chuckle their way through the performance unchallenged.

As long as venues like the ENO are making their work more accessible, we are winning. It’s up to all of us to challenge dangerous and lazy representations of disability wherever the occur but we can only do that effectively when the barriers to access are removed. We’re going to keep making Sonic Stories and other access documents for the companies that want them, but what we’re not prepared to do is stay silent when we’re appalled by the work.

The relaxed performance of The Magic Flute is on Tuesday 12th March. But it’s already sold out apparently!

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