From the moment I enter the performance space at the Unlimited Festival in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank I can feel that the stage is set for a spiritual experience. The gentle tones of a harmonium washes over the bare foot audience before Claire Cunningham enters, greeting us as if we are attending an evangelical meeting. Dressed in white and pastel she strikes an ethereal figure as she she glides around the performance space on her crutches. To watch her move truly is beautiful to behold, or as the audio description extols "it is good".
Of course Ms. Cunningham has chosen a big and contentious subject to explore in Guide Gods, disability and religion. Even within the disabled community it is a tricky one, but Claire lays out her position from the start. She explains she began the journey to the creation of the show as an atheist who perceived disability as a political issue of rights and choices and not a theological issue of God and possible punishment or test. The show took shape after a meeting with a defrocked Buddhist monk, ironically named Mr Rong, who felt his disability was a direct result of bad karma incurred during a past life. This shocked Ms Cunningham and kick started a search for the truth behind faith and disability.
The piece revolves around word and movement, the balletic movement being as beautiful to watch as the recorded words of the people interviewed during this search are thought provoking. Claire Cunningham takes on a merry journey around the faiths of the world, exploring what it means to have a faith and an impairment and how culture can be mistaken for religion by outsiders. The outcome demonstrates how meeting people who have deep religious belief affected Ms Cunningham's own world view. She asks us all to be as tolerant of each others beliefs as we would hope to be of each others abilities, ethnicity and sex.
What struck me was Claire Cunningham's mesmerizing dance technique, which added to the sensitive approach to the recorded voices of all faiths, the humour of the script, the superb accessible performance design and the use of familiarChristian hymns created a stunning piece to watch. One which led even this hardened atheist to find myself agreeing with Ms Cunningham's findings. To place a show exploring faith's attitude towards disability in a festival of disability arts was a brave move but that bravery paid off. As I sipped the tea that was served at the end of the piece I also agreed with the show's other finding, the one thing that joins all faiths and people's of the world is the love of a good cuppa.
If the world's political and religious leaders saw Guide Gods I wonder if we might move a little closer to world peace?
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