'Don't Wake Me ' is a mother's love song for her disabled son, starring the superb Jaye Griffiths. Nicole Fordham Hodges went to see it at the Cockpit Theatre.
Rahila Gupta wrote a play about her disabled son, after his death. The resulting piece is, as you'd expect, intensely personal. Yet it is also political, funny, and complex. It's a monologue, given into the strong wiry hands of Jay Griffiths, who carries this intense material through sheer acting force.
She is helped by Rahila Gupta's inspired decision to use the traditional rhyming ballad form. Somehow Gupta's clever, playful, adaptable use of language takes the weight, and helps to elevate this story way beyond the personal. Yes, occasionally the rhyme feels forced, but its playful, surprising energy keeps it moving, stops us getting bogged down. For this play is about the big, universal themes: love and loss. Gupta switches effortlessly into lyricism: a baby's 'sweet ugliness' or 'What else to do with you, so close up?'
The mother moves from addressing the audience directly, to talking to a large photograph of Nihal placed on an easel, or to Nihal's empty wheelchair, with which she performs a kind of tender dance of intimacy. She takes the audience from Nihal's difficult birth, to his diagnosis with Cerebral Palsy, through the appallingly difficult struggle to get suitable education for him.
Nihal cannot talk, but his mother is convinced he is an intelligent boy who can communicate, in spite of professionals who are 'too scared to stand up for what they saw' , for whom he 'disrupts their neat categories.' With the help of facilitated communication, Nihal shows himself to be insightful, funny, poetic and spirited: in this sense, this is an uplifting story.
But 'Don't Wake Me' is no simplistic 'Triumph over Tragedy' tale. It is an impassioned critique of the education system and a plea for truly inclusive education. It talks of the obfuscation of doctors 'paragliding in an arc from colloquial to technical' . It describes school after school rejecting Nihal's needs, using 'columns of words to keep our kids out of their schools.'
This play allows complexity room. Jaye Griffiths portrays the shifts from love, to humour, to despair. She explores the feelings of guilt: has she betrayed her child? Has she forgotten the needs of his non-disabled sister? Has, the mother asks, the disability movement tended to over-emphasise the positive in order to correct ' aeons of contempt' ? 'Disabled and proud left no room for disabled and pissed off.'
Nihal's own voice takes its place in the play, including two of his poems which show an emerging young talent. It's not possible to forget him, with his photo looking out at us and the strength of his words. Some of the moments when his mother addresses the wheelchair stand on the edge between personal and too personal. This edge gives the play its power. On Nihal's death, grief is given its full, searing voice in a deeply moving portrayal by Jaye Griffiths. Yet the play continues after its most powerful point, as if the writer could not yet bear to let go of this tribute to her son, could not yet say goodbye.
Letters to God, the mother tells us, are often posted into the Wailing Wall, as if to ' bundle the grief up and put it in another place.'
'This is my bundle. I am placing it in your hands. You are the cracks in my divine wall, so that I can carry on living. Give me the perfect words to mourn my son.'
A mother took on the responsibility of writing a play about her dead son. She wrote something beautiful, true and so nearly perfect. She carried her son's voice forward. Jaye Griffiths took the 'bundle' in her hands and gave an extraordinary performance. Now, for just a few lines, the responsibility is mine: It's a wonderful piece of work, and deserves to be widely seen.
Don't Wake Me: The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong:
5-25 August, Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh Fringe Festival
The playtext is available to download from www.amazon.co.uk,
and has been published by Playdead Press, (2013)