Birds of Paradise

Purposeless Movements: Stories of Humanity, Identity, Love and Paradise

On Friday, we went to the Traverse Theatre to see the Birds of Paradise production ‘Purposeless Movements’.  The play is written by Birds of paradise co-Artistic Director Robert Softley Gale and stars Laurence Clark, Amy Cheskin (British Sign Language BSL Interpreter), Pete Edwards, Jim Fish and Colin Young.

We went with high expectations as Laurence Clark is a friend of ours and we have had many a hilarious night watching him perform in Edinburgh Fringe shows including Abnormally Funny People’s recent ‘10th Anniversary Show’.  Our high hopes were easily fulfilled by a superb production that managed to offer a gutsy, hard-hitting and intense assessment of disabled men’s lives; at the same time as being funny, emotive, sensitive and thought provoking.

The play centres on the complex identities of four ‘male’ characters and their life-course aspirations, experiences and desires. Whilst including female performers, it makes no apologies for analysing, questioning and unpicking our concepts of ‘maleness’.

The play is beautifully ambiguous it could be a montage of one disabled man’s life stages or it could be about 4 men separated in terms of geography, age/generation and/or their impairment effects. Whatever way you look at it, this play re-defines our understandings of life, growing-up, transition, impairment, independence and inclusion.

For example, Colin Young humorously introduces us to key aspects of inclusion (relating to education) . Laurence Clark tells us about the stressful and fearful processes involved in independent living and gently chides the audience when reminding them that 55% of Scots were too scared to vote for independence.

Through a combination of well-crafted dramatic dialogue, thoughtful music (and lyrics), expressive sign-language, interactive video and very purposefully choreographed physical movements; this play consistently poses questions, shifts meaning and pushes the watchers’ boundaries.

The play adeptly employs different types of scenes to do different jobs e.g. there are three different scenes that involve the characters jousting with each other over who is the quickest, most qualified, best in bed or strongest. Such scenes, whilst questioning societies need to produce winners and losers, also: offer us moments to: view the performers as defeated; understand the cast member’s ability to take turns; examine their reflective thoughts and learn about other people’s prejudiced perspectives of their abilities.

Yet, there are also scenes where the performers pose at the front of the stage with four microphones as if in a boy-band, or as a group of improvisation-comedians or as a trophy of sculpted artistic mannequins. These interactive scenes (where Laurence Clark and Colin Young demonstrate excellent comedic timing) invite the audience to view the actors and the characters as more than the parts of their impairment.

Indeed, the writer informs  us at the start and reminds us at the end that these are ‘professional’ actors.  He also asks us to stick up two fingers to the notion that anyone is ‘normal’ and kick into touch the idea that disabled people are a-sexual, whilst playing with us in terms of whether we are ‘a part of’ or ‘apart from’ the ‘insider’ humour.

He does this in a way that enables the audience to learn or imagine what it is like to experience discrimination. This is the strength of the writing, sometimes the script is refreshingly obtuse but mostly it avoids hectoring, lecturing or telling the audience what to think.  One of the most beautiful lines of the play is given to Pete who questions why/how his lover would want to be with someone like him?

We are told that Pete’s lover, rather than speaking a reply, simply kisses him. This line invites the audience to think for and with Pete.  My own mind immediately admired the subtle power of Pete’s lover and their unconditional love.  I also jumped to the conclusion that this was Rob, the writer, speaking directly to us about his own admiration for his lover.  This scene not only demonstrates the mobility of the ideas set up in the play, but it also shows how interactive the play is.

The writer, choreographer (Rachel Drazek), cast, musicians and artistic collaborator (Luke Pell) have all combined to produce a work of art that is evocative and enables the audience to connect the ideas of the play to their own lives.

For example, the play has been written in a way where BSL is integral to its meaning – signs for strength, male, female, etc. are consistently employed not only by the signing actress but also by the other members of the cast. Hence, in scenes where there is little or no dialogue, the actors’ movements hauntingly express the language of love, pain, struggle, hope, fear, defeat, sadness etc.; in ways that all of us can connect to.

There is such a visual spectacle on stage and such a multiplicity of messages that this is the sort of play you could see more than once – indeed if you are going to see this play (which I would highly recommend) watch out for a twist in the tale near the end in the scene performed by Jim Fish just after the video of the cats. Yes – there are Cats in this play as well!

This scene is wonderfully subtle and yet it also acts as an important sign-post for the main message of the play – so don’t miss it.

Yes, this is also such a sensitive piece of work. In particular, the complementary music eases us through the story and specific bridging musical sections dove tail seamlessly with grittier scenes to provide space for the audience to contemplate the deeper meaning of the play.

The music (which has a hint of ‘True Detective’ Americana) involves deeply emotional on stage contributions by Scott Twynholm and Kim Moore. The musical lyrics are as appreciative, layered and defiant as any other aspect of the play but they are also gentle, suggestive and poetic.

For example, songs such as ‘Man Interrupted’, highlight the tendency for us to interrupt disabled people at the same time as posing questions about the male/impaired dichotomy, stereo-types concerning ‘normality’ and whether it is possible for a disabled man to grow to maturity in the disablist world we live in? (This question is answered at the end of the play).

At one point Kim Moore’s voice rises angelically above the fray to pluck at your heart strings and pose the most fundamental of questions about what it is for us to be human beings. And, this is why this show has so much more to offer than a simple vox-pop, snap shot, of what it is to be a disabled man – encountering barriers in our disablist society.

With scenes concerning Hetro- and LGBT-passion (e.g. Pete Edwards’ pivotal scene), the play asks us to examine our need for life-fulfilling relationships, at the same time as making light of the rawness of loves rejection e.g. when one of the hopeful cast members (Jim Fish) learns his feelings are unrequited.

There was a question and answer session after the play and it was clear that the play could be interpreted in a variety of ways depending who the audience member was. For that reason, this play should be able to attract a range of audiences, young and old and from all different types of backgrounds.  You could see the play being a big hit in London, New York. San Francisco or New Orleans – places that value diversity, are interested in social justice and have a track record for embracing work that takes a risk.

I also found myself regularly analysing scenes from a feminist perspective (e.g. Amy quietly sleeping on the knee of Laurence who uses his power chair to move her around the stage? Amy acting as a personal assistant to Jim? Amy acting as the BSL signer and also a cast member – does she get paid double?).

It would be interesting, for example, to listen to people from Women for Independence about how they interpret the play or to think how the play might be extended to work, even more, with intersections between disability and race (the jokes about Colin’s Scottish accent begin to do this – but what adaptations would be required for an American audience?).

Speaking to the cast in the bar afterwards – you could see that the embodied nature of the play takes a toll with every performance. This is ‘theatre’ in every sense of the word, hard earned, hard fought and hard played – with all the scars, bumps and bruises to prove it.

This show has received excellent reviews, including a 5 star review from Mary Brennen in the Herald. The show is next performed in Inverness on the 16th of March 2016.  If you have a chance to see the show grab it.

PS: I have worked on disability rights projects with Laurence Clark in Liverpool, where we were also involved in the ‘Diversity and Difference’ project.  I also have worked with Colin Young as part of the, ‘Life as a Disabled Child project.  You may think that this makes my review in some way biased – you shouldn’t.  I have written the review because this is genuinely the best play I have seen at the Traverse since Ian Brown directed Trainspotting in 1994.