Robert Softley Gale brings disabled peoples' authentic voices to life in If These Spasms Could Speak. Richard Downes saw the show in The Blue Room, in the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre on 3 September as part of Unlimited 2014
Disability Arts and Culture first home was in the Disability Movement for disabled people of disabled people and in support of the struggles of disabled people. Some of us remain precious about that identity and seek to preserve our history. Art was created in our homes and travelled to small halls and venues that we had a semblance of ownership over.
Robert Softley-Gale, proclaimed as activist, is close to these roots and demonstrates it ably by taking a comfy chair and slideshow of his allies in this production to a secret room in the prestigious Southbank Centre.
Almost underground Robert brings our voices to life, representing our hopes and aspirations. His strength is found in stories of experience, almost secretive, still largely hidden lives to a full inclusive airing.
He challenges the audience to listen, inviting them to question anything that gets lost in translation through speech impairment and it is clear from laughter and audience participation that he can hold our ear for he has stories to tell that demand to be heard.
Yet as we have moved to new surroundings found better resources (for some) so there is another movement, another thought being thought and Robert straddles this moment in the zeitgeist. As we once banged on for the collective we are now listening to the ‘what about me’ voices of the ‘lived in experience of disability’, a controversial term, that subjugates equality to the diversity of the many people we are.
We are in a place that demands a better deal not for all of us but for each and every one of us; on our own personal terms. It is on this stage that the much remarked-upon bodies within ‘Spasms’ reveal themselves to be no stronger than metaphors, exemplars, of a people who society sought to leave behind but who found the strength, the wit, the courage to survive and often prosper against the odds; a callous society constructed, within a lifespan that could have seen better.
Indeed ‘Spasms’ is a misnomer. Softley Gale sets you up to look for them but admits he wouldn’t want you to see them and you don’t. You are not invited to find yourself a place upon the continuum that slides between the visible and the invisible, the gargoyle and the cast away. Instead you witness control, composure, expert timing that rarely waivers within a magical manipulation of sight and sound.
Robert Softley Gale commands his performance, puts on a show and never fails to miss a beat within the rhythm he has constructed in his own self advocacy and representation of us, the people. He is one we could become but let us up from the chains of our oppressor and let us take the time to celebrate the good folk that we have already been.
And within this context, welcome back Unlimited. Last year I came to your festival glad to be there but largely cynical. Tonight my gladness remains and I am freer within it because I myself have grown and feel somewhat more included. Let us now continue to grow together and find a somewhat bigger stage for Robert’s chair.