3 September 2014
Religion and art are uncomfortable, but necessary bedfellows argues Colin Hambrook in a critique of Claire Cunningham’s dance/ theatre piece, which tells the stories of the religious beliefs of a range of disabled people
The title for Claire Cunningham’s latest show Guide Gods intentionally sounds like a tongue twister. It’s a gently humorous piece woven around a series of voices, relayed via a pre-recorded soundtrack, taken from interviews with 25 disabled people from the four major religious beliefs and cultures, juxtaposed with Claire’s own questions, as someone wishing to understand ideas she, like many of us, feel alienated from; and perhaps afeared by.
Set within an intimate circular space created on the stage area of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Guide Gods is an invitation to reflect on our own inner realms of belief as disabled people. Do we feel we are being tested or punished by some higher power for our impairments? Are our impairments created as a result of cause and effect, from actions carried out in previous lives?
We may, on one hand feel pride as disabled people, yet still struggle to completely shake off the yoke of societal shame attached to impairment.
As an audience we are carried along through Claire’s journey, meeting the many fascinating disabled individuals she talked to about their beliefs. Each voice is represented by a tea-cup (she introduces the piece by saying the one thing she discovered from her research was that the one thing people of all faiths have in common, is that they all like tea!)
The collection of tea-cups are then used a visual metaphor, for the individuals whose stories she wishes to tell. She weaves movement around these sines; movement which is often fragile, even deliberately clumsy. This is a very different artist to the Claire Cunningham we’ve seen executing gracious and fluid choreographed movements on crutches in previous shows in her repertoire. In Guide Gods she presents herself as vulnerable, posing questions to the contradictions and inconsistencies that disabled people live with, because of and despite of their chosen belief systems.
The pace of Guide Gods is defined by the slow rhythm of the violin and harmonium accompaniment, as well as Claire’s own gorgeous voice breaking into old time religious favourites such as the Lord of the Dance, until that is, the moment she reaches the lines about ‘curing the lame’ and ‘giving sight to the blind’.
Yet, here again she seeks to understand what’s happening in these lyrics in terms of the historical context of Jesus as having the power to bring equilibrium into peoples’ lives, rather than our modern day interpretation of the text as a literal biomedical healing.
Religion and belief in general, are difficult and challenging subjects to make Art about. In direct contrast with Guide Gods was DV8’s Can We Talk About This? A deliberate provocation, Lloyd Newson set out to present testimonies on religious faith and its often violent consequences through interviews with leading figures from across the religious, political, cultural and social spectrum.
Guide Gods seeks to enlighten us about the daily, non-violent practice of faith, as opposed to the stories of those at the extreme ends of religious belief. As a show it perhaps tries to cram too much in, to analyse the history and philosophy of peoples’ religious ideas too much.
The clearest narrative running through the performance is the story of Mr Rong - a disabled man from Cambodia who Claire met. He had been allowed to become a Buddhist monk for a time, but was defrocked because of his disability. He talked about relating his disability to karma, and to the idea that something bad he’d done in a previous life was the cause of his disability and the reason for his faith not accepting him as a monk.
Claire then talked to other Buddhists who were horrified that the concept of karma could be interpreted in this way: that karma is only attributable to acts of free will, rather than things beyond our control. “This” they said, “is a Hindu idea of karma.” Until, she spoke to Hindus about their concept of karma as meaning you try to be the best person you can be, so the next life will bring better fortune.
Ultimately Guide Gods offers no conclusions, save the bare fact of the humanity of the disabled individuals who Claire presents, expressing their day-to-day practice of faith in the face of the many obstacles religion places in their way. There is warmth and humour, amongst the ridiculous attitudes disabled people are confronted with.
At the heart of the show is the idea that if we all sat down together on an equal footing we could all iron out our differences no matter where we come from in terms of culture and belief. In keeping with this ideal of inclusion Guide Gods makes a courageous attempt to incorporate audio-description within the performance, again via a pre-recorded voice.
Some of the funniest moments, especially at the beginning and end of the show, are where the audio-description comes across as a creation myth within the self-contained universe of the QEH. At times though, the voice of the description becomes overwhelming, especially when there is so much to describe. Some details inevitably are left out in order to keep pace.
Religion is a conundrum in relationship with disability. Guide Gods does an admirable job of highlighting issues around interpretation and the subtleties of the distinctions between religion, faith and culture. Hopefully, Claire Cunningham will get a chance to tour the work further, or at least to provoke further work around these important issues.