I don’t think I’ve ever understood Theseus’ lines in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as clearly as I did today. Because this afternoon I saw something I’ve never seen before: a group of profoundly disabled young people going to the very heart of Shakespeare’s comedy and making the audience see the world afresh.
It wasn’t the best spoken production of Shakespeare I’ve ever attended. In fact, hardly a word of the text was spoken, because many of the learners at St Elizabeth’s College in Hertfordshire are non-verbal, and the ones who do have speech are very quiet and hesitant in using their voices. We needed to use our imagination, just as these extraordinary young people and their teachers and carers had used theirs.
Titania was played by a small shy girl in a wheelchair, with bright red lipstick and a crown of flowers in her hair. Puck was a non-verbal lad who dangled a bunch of lilacs into the wrong eyes. Hermia and Helena hated each other viciously, if in the simplest of terms: ‘I love Lysander, he’s mine’, so slowly and delicately that it was like watching a butterfly emerge. Lysander and Demetrius were similarly enraged. Bottom was brilliantly raucous, a big young man who got very excited and tore his ass’s ears off in frustration to a huge cheer from the audience. The story was told by a girl who’s usually wheelchair bound, with such finesse and care we were all on the edge of our seats listening to her. And a young man in the front stood up and announced each scene number with tremendous pride.
The Dream was performed in the college gym. On one wall was a huge David Hockney type painting of a wood that the students had spent weeks making. And to the side there were some Greek columns and a painted stone wall to represent Athens. All the actors wore black, but were each decorated in their own individual way, crowns of leaves on their heads, flowers round their waists, sparkling glitter on cheeks, and little splashes of bright lipstick for the girls. For the wedding at the end there was a beautiful arch made of painted flowers through which all the actors emerged. And my Joey, in a golden crown and a golden toga, came on and beamed his golden smile as Duke Theseus. And all was well in the world.
As we clapped along to the music this brilliant cast took their curtain calls - though Joey doesn’t really know how to bow and instead clapped us and laughed gleefully. And as I went round congratulating the staff who’d put this amazing event together - and had led the performers on to the stage and stood next to them whispering reminders in their ears - they all said the same thing. They immediately told me that the students had done everything, and refused to take any credit. And I realised yet again the quality of the people who work with the profoundly disabled. Their commitment to these young people shows an amazing combination of vocational passion and gritty professionalism, of deep humanity and sheer pragmatism, and testified again and again to what an astonishing place St Elizabeth’s is and how fantastic are its staff.
“The wall is down that parted their fathers”, says Bottom near the end of the play, and this afternoon I saw the walls between the disabled and the non-disabled, the specialist teacher and the learner, the parent and the child and, in my case, the professional and the amateur, come crashing down. Shakespeare, I promise you, would have approved. It was an amazing event that I’ll never forget.