“Ah, better to get a normal fella who can act crippled” - thoughts on Daniel Radcliffe in ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’ / 1 July 2013
I’ve got a bit of a crush on Daniel Radcliffe. Not only because he can ride a broomstick like no one else and is friends with Dumbledore. I think his acting is wonderfully understated and, more importantly, he has come across as utterly modest, charming and funny in every interview I could get my hands on.
When I realised that he would star in a West End play, I was in heaven. Finally I would get the chance to indulge my inner fangirl! The name of said play? ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’ – with Daniel in the role of Cripple Billy. Awkward. ‘Cripple Billy’? Really? And played by a nondisabled actor, who just happens to be one of my favourite British actors? Now there’s a catch, if there ever was one. However, I decided that I needed to watch this play all the more, even if it meant I would have to ditch my rose-tinted fangirl glasses and put my PhD-on-disability-performance glasses on.
I didn’t know the play before, which was written by Michael McDonagh and first staged in 1996. It is set in the 1930s, on the small Irish island of Inishmaan, which gets visited by American film producers on the lookout for the next Hollywood star. To Billy, orphaned and disabled from birth, this seems like the ideal way to escape the dull, bleak life in Inishmaan, his two spinster aunties and his identity as the village cripple. Also interested to meet the American film crew are Billy’s crush, the outspoken village beauty Helen, and her brother Bartley.
Although the whole village seems to find Billy’s ambitions ridiculous, the producers actually take an interest in him and take him to the USA. Once they are back in Hollywood though, they ditch Cripple Billy quickly in favour of a nondisabled actor who is ‘cripping up’. Billy laments: “They didn't want me. A blond lad from Fort Lauderdale they hired instead of me. He wasn't crippled at all, but the Yank said, "Ah, better to get a normal fella who can act crippled than a crippled fella who can't fecking act at all." Except he said it ruder. (Pause) I thought I'd done alright for meself with me acting. Hours I practised in me hotel there. And all for nothing.” I wonder how Radcliffe feels, saying this line? How director Michael Grandage feels about his decision not to hire a single disabled actor for the play when roles for disabled people are so hard to come by, and disabled people’s only chance to be seen by a wide audience is in rubbish inspiration porn like ‘The Undateables’?
Considering that we had a wonderful Cultural Olympiad last year and a spectacular Paralympic Opening Ceremony, the moment to cast great disabled talent never seemed better – but sadly, this seems like a fantastic opportunity missed by stage and TV productions. Unfortunately, I don’t think this show would have sold out, like it did every night, without Radcliffe in the main role – after all, I bought my ticket for this very reason. However, if productions have nondisabled actors cripping up, I think there are other things they could do to soften the blow for the disabled community: For example they could make a conscious effort to cast disabled people in other roles or to hire disabled people as part of the production team. Generally, if the play is about disability, the production should familiarize themselves with disability politics and have disabled people advise them on the staging, so that the production doesn’t feel offensive.
I don’t think this has happened much with this production. Many moments in the play have made me, as a disabled person, quite uncomfortable. During the first act of the play, for example, Billy’s aunties ponder over his prospects of finding a girlfriend, saying “Poor Billy 'll never be getting kissed. Unless it was be a blind girl.” This created a lot of laughter from the audience, to my disbelief. Watching the audience, I didn’t get the feeling that the joke was on the aunties, under-estimating Billy’s chances with the ladies – after all, Billy has never been kissed before.
Personally, while there were some lines in the play that appealed to my black sense of humour, many moments that the audience found funny seemed to be simply making fun of disability – and, as they didn’t come from a disabled point of view, I found them offensive. There are many disabled comedians and playwrights out there with a wicked sense of humour who highlight the funny side of disability, but that should be their prerogative. To make fun of disability, from a nondisabled point of view, quickly feels exploitative. There are some great moments in the play that reflect on disability, as for example when Billy begs a friend to call him ‘just Billy’, not ‘Cripple Billy’, or the aforementioned scene where a nondisabled actor steals Billy’s role in the Hollywood movie, but they do not make up for the fact that this is one more play that treats disability as a metaphor, for the stagnant, ‘crippling’ life on Inishmaan. Been there, done that, can we move on now?
Radcliffe himself seems to be the only one in the production who did some research on disability, as he wanted to find out what specific disability Billy has, even though it is not mentioned in the play: “After a lot of research I landed on cerebral palsy as being a viable option because there is a specific kind of cerebral palsy called Hemiplegia, which affects one side of the body and not the other. It's also a condition that can be apparent at birth. So then I had to learn about the mechanics of cerebral palsy and what that involves, why it affects the body the way that it does, and how people learn to live with it - they usually become incredibly skilful with their ‘good' side. I felt it was important to make his condition specific, rather than attempting some generalised ‘cripple' thing. To me, that is kind of offensive, to say, "oh well I'll just do something a bit weird", without looking into it at all.”
Radcliffe chose to portray Billy’s disability as a physical reality, not a metaphor – Billy’s disability seems believable, and his mobility restrictions are portrayed consistently, but are not over-emphasized or satirised. To me, this was the saving grace of the play. Radcliffe mentioned in an interview that he seems to have done more research on disability than the playwright of ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’, Martin McDonagh, himself. It shows.
Nonetheless, this play deals with some interesting thoughts on disabled identity and shows a refreshing lack of sentimentality. Also, the acting of the whole cast was brilliant. But it would be interesting to see what a company like Graeae would do to material like this, or generally, how a production company who is aware of stereotypical tropes and stereotypes around disability would stage ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’. Sadly, as it is, it is just one more representation of disability by nondisabled people, made for a nondisabled audience.
This is emphasized by the fact that the Noel Coward theatre is one of London’s least accessible theatres, and that during it’s almost 3 month-long run, only one single performance of ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’ is accessible to visually impaired or Deaf people. It is impossible to enter the building with a wheelchair without help from the staff, and there are only one or two wheelchair spaces, separated from the rest of the muggles – err, I mean, audience. Not even rose-tinted fangirl glasses could gloss over the shortcomings of this play.