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> > > Greaeae: The Limbless Knight - a tale of rights reignited at the Greenwich and Docklands Festival

23 June 2013

photo of a dark figure taken from a low vantage point against a brilliant blue sky

What does it mean to be alive? Graeae Theatre ask in their new production The Limbless Knight - performed at Greenwich and Docklands Festival 21- 23 June. Colin Hambrook critiques the latest offering from one of the UKs foremost disability theatre companies

The performance began with short testimonies from the audience asserting human rights articles on the right for all children to play and to have an education. And so the play moves into the realm of children's song. We'll all be merry and bright the cast sing, embedding a growing number of impairments within the rhyme, parodying the stereotype that disabled people will always smile nicely and be grateful.

We're in a fairytale place where Sophie Partridge as the Queen asks favours of her subjects who swear allegiance to her and lose their legs in battle, fighting in her name. She commands the stage filling it with her presence through a series of speeches questioning where the will for all human beings to be free in dignity and rights has gone? She asks how the public and political perception of disabled people has changed so quickly from being heroes to being a costly burden?

As she is slowly raised up inside her scaffold tower the limbless knights come to the fore, climbing a series of sway poles set stage left and right, creating a spectacle of aerial acrobatics. Graeae used sway poles as a theatrical device in the highly compelling story of a drowning world 'Against The Tide' and in 2012's pretty production 'The Garden'. However the attempt here to use the poles within the narrative added further layers which obfuscated the intention of the piece to ask questions of its audience.

A tentative link to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was intended, but lacked cohesion. Instead of the Augurs of Spring and an Evocation of the Ancestors, we get two handmaidens prannying about in the air, in conflict with a couple of limbless knights. Was the implication that the handmaidens were the queens' PAs? What they were doing fighting in the air? Why the argument? The Limbless Knight had no clear cut middle or end, leaving a question around what was the most important story the tale of rights reignited was trying to tell?

The Queens' dress is lowered from the scaffold tower and folded as it would have been done in a military funeral. But this reference was only clear in the audio-description provided for the piece. The fictional grey setting was used as a device for connecting with the personal testimonies of several disabled ex-servicemen. It could have been the most riveting part of the play, but the fragmenting of any dramatic tension and the lack of weaving those testimonies into the script meant the audience was left struggling to understand what was going on as the soldiers came centre-stage to deliver their short monologues.

At the beginning of June 2103 a headline in The Independent reported that "thousands of disabled ex-servicemen are being pushed to the breadline after being judged fit for work by the government-appointed company Atos." The Limbless Knight with its allusion to the current plight of the dispossession of disabled people, could have achieved so much more.

There was a missed opportunity for telling it like it is. Bravo 22 Company's  production of The Two Worlds of Charlie F,

The play was dedicated to the life and memory of Paul Burns - one of the six disabled ex-servicemen who had been working with Graeae as a member of the cast and co-creator of the show. His very recent, untimely death was undoubtedly a terrible blow for all involved in the production. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been bringing the production to stage in the light of the sadness of Paul's demise. His work with Graeae was not in vain. As critical as I've been in considering the aesthetic of 'The Limbless Knight'

In terms of getting across how much societies attitudes need to change; how 'invalid' disabled people are in a society that increasingly looks at the monetary cost, rather the real value of our contribution, the play successfully eschewed a message of how wonderful life is - beyond the tragic but brave sentiments that muddy our representation. My ten year old daughter got it. Although she was equally confused by what was happening on stage, in answer to the question 'What does it mean to be alive?' she responded: "It's easy for those with money and power and who make all the rules."

The Limbless Knight is being staged in The Island Gardens, Greenwich 21-23 June. Please go to DAOs events listings pages for further details.


Joe McConnell

25 June 2013

"The Limbless Knight had no clear cut middle or end ..." Neither has the war this country has unleashed on innocent people in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. In our name. Did the overseas victims of our wars get any mention in this production? Ex-Servicemen and women often join us as being disabled by society and we should welcome them. Caglar Kimyoncu's recent 'Conscription' subtly explored the crippling power of militarism and warmongering, and I learnt a lot by engaging with the issues it raises. I couldn't make it to Limbless Knight, so this is a question not an accusation.

Jez Scarratt

25 June 2013

I read your review with interest. I am an ex Royal Marine turned sway polle performer so the exploration of theatre is still new to me. But I do know that this is tale one and with only 2 weeks rehearsal and the death of Paul we got as far as we could. Our next take will take in your points and will challenge the politics even more.

Sophie P.

24 June 2013

Thanks Jo,

Hoppe u wrote those great words on 1 of the cards!?


Jo Verrent

24 June 2013

I loved the politics and loved the sway poles - the bits I found more difficult were different - so just goes to show you can never please everyone! I agree re the balance of language, sound, poetics and this echoes for me with notions of performance and performers. What does it take to be a 'performer'? What do we mean by this in relation to disability? For me, it goes right back to the heart of the freak show - as empowerment and not only as oppression - is 'being' the same as performing? Where are the lines? For me being alive is being in the present moment, and the show made me attend to that. So often I am in my head, in the next show, the next project, the next moment. This show made me take the time to be here and now, to attend to whats right in front of me. And for that I thank everyone involved.

Sophie P.

24 June 2013

Thanks both for coming & engaging with it so openly :-)

All valid points and I think we were trying to find that balance between what is real and surreal, myth & truth and whether one `story' should take precedence over another... I tell you something; when you're up that high in the air, all those worlds collide, merging into A Reality and I guess that for me these past 2 weeks, THAT is what it means to be Alive! Xx

Love 2 u both,


Liz Porter

24 June 2013

Yes it is good to see the company being a bit more 'politically' on the edge and continuing in their local community engagement work too(we understnad they worked with local school children as well as the ex-service men)Powerful and important subject matter with huge potential to grow in confidence. But the show left me questioning who their 'intended audience was' and whether you need so many different theatrical layers to convey the stories of these men. I'm interested in paralles of myth/ledgend/fictional writing and personal story, but I agree with Col thre was no real cohession it was confusing - the men's stories should have been the most important feature, but I'm not sure they were, I felt that we needed a clearer link between the real, myth and fictional elements - a clearer linking device between the two realms.

I found it really hard to graps all the action because the set costumes and sway poles were mostly steely grey against a very grey white sky so even though the AD attempted to signpost i didn't notice whre the sway poles where till half way through and I didn't think they needed to be there at all on this occassion - I think the central scafold tower would have been enough. I do think Sophie Partridge was an excellent choice for queen. It was also really imporant that the ex-service men took centre stage and were open enough to share their stories with us, very difficult given recent events.

2 points I would make.

1 I thought the company could develop their initial opening section that used layers of poetic language sentences in rythmn against the musical score (musical score great but need to get balance of sound right)

2. Find a way to incorporate the poetic language throughout as layer of AD. All the audience should receive AD there is no reason why it couldn't have been incorporated as part of the narrative and can really help audiences to understand the story and signifigance of some of the movements.

This show will raise important issues and as we move into 2014 it's very relevant.

Colin Hambrook

24 June 2013

I meant to add that it was great to see Graeae doing something from a disability persepective.

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