I left the premiere performance of Graeae Theatre Company's The Limbless Knight the at Greenwich and Docklands International Festival yesterday with heart filled with joy but my head reeling with a myriad of questions raised by the piece, all left unanswered. The play, a stunning mixture of drama, music, dance and aerial acrobatics, aims to ask it's audience "what does it mean to be alive?", and then challenges any preconceptions that may colour the answer through both the story arc and the cast performance, a cast made up in part by ex-service men disabled while on active duty. Questions run through the DNA of this mesmerizing piece, questions of all sizes.
One that you catch yourself asking time after time during the short performance is "can they do that?" For almost all of the cast are obviously disabled, to a greater or lesser extent, yet within minutes of the piece opening we find the stage filled with bodies of all shapes flying through the air, attached to "sway poles" or climbing the scaffold tower that fills the center of the stage, performing acrobatics that takes your breathe away. Graeae is the UK's leading integrated theatre company, with a long history of challenging the conventional expectations around disability by exposing the work of disabled acting and writing talent to the wider society, and the Limbless Knight continues that tradition with gusto. Graeae's artistic director Jenny Sealey, best known as half of the brains behind the 2012 Paralympic Opening and Closing ceremonies, directed this piece working again with members of the cast she put together for the games. She continued to pose the question of what disabled people can do that she began with the Paralympic ceremonies with this piece, but now adds darker questions, about rights, choices and experience.
From it's outset, with the stage being filled with children from the nearby George Green's School declaring clauses from the Human Rights Act that apply to children and especially disabled children, the audience is asked to consider the concept of rights and how these rights impact on us. As we now live in a society, led by a government, that is constantly questioning the subject of how human rights affect us all, The Limbless Knight seeks to re-balance the discussion by referring to those within our society that have seen real benefits from the application of the concept. The piece also asks it's audience is it right to expect our service men and women to go and serve our country when if they return disabled in the pursuit of that service they become a part of a minority that are still seen as inferior... or invalid? Is it right to consider anyone in that manner? Especially those whose physicality was such an important part of the role they played on our behalf?
The question of invalidity flows through the piece but as a counter balance for what is obviously the truth. Disabled people can be as strong, beautiful, creative and vital as anyone else. As the performance flows from segment to segment, service men Steve Gill, Patrick Provis and Matthew Woollard come to the front and tell their stories in the style of a children's bed time story. This is one of the most powerful sections of the show, but is entirely in keeping with the dream-like atmosphere that The Limbless Knight conjures for the audience. These personal stories combine with aerial dance sections exploring the close relationships of the returning service personnel. Love, joy, anger, sadness, desperation and depression are all captured in turn with graceful beauty by performers at the end of 4 metre high sway poles. These are interrupted by the character of the Queen, played by the amazing Sophie Partridge whose performance from her tiny frame fills the entire outside performance space, as she demands that these tormented dancers cease their anguish and grasp the concept that they are still alive... and have so much life to live and so much to live for.
This theme is the most wonderful element of this show. As a disabled person myself I realized very long ago how amazing life is and how important it is to seize each day as if it might be your last. It is a belief that I find mirrored back at me when I meet many other disabled people, especially those who come to their disability through trauma. To capture this realization, and then to throw it out to an audience who may never have considered it before would be amazing enough but to do it by exploring the experience of injured service personnel shows the true strength of what Graeae can do. More than just continuing the dramatic tradition of this ground breaking theatre company, The Limbless Knight creates a fairy tale world where young and old can ask "what if that was me?" but gives them the ability to answer with confidence "I'd be OK... no... I'd be amazing!"
From it's start to the finish with a dedication to one of the show's cast and co-creators Paul Burns, who sadly died during a charity bike ride, the show is thoroughly entertaining and enchanting. A must see for all the family, whether they come away with ahead full of questions like me or just smiling at the beauty and child like wonder of the show. One thing is for sure, at a time when the issue of the representation of disabled people in the theatre is raging, you will be blown away at the sheer number and the supreme talent of the disabled cast that take you on the magical, cerebral and enjoyable journey that is The Limbless Knight.
Shows at GDIF -
Friday 21 - Sunday 23 June 2013 Times:
Friday 2pm & 7.45pm
Saturday 2.15pm & 6.40pm
Sunday 1pm & 4pm
Greenwich + Docklands International Festival Island Gardens, Saunders Ness Road, Tower Hamlets, London E14
Photography by Patrick Baldwin