Robert Softley Gale crawls on to the stage, his face contorted, in the play If These Spasms Could Speak, about the lives of differently abled people. As he paints poignant and humorous images, the audience realises that the actor isn’t faking it entirely. Gale suffers from cerebral palsy and is among the world’s foremost performers on wheelchair. In another play, Don’t Wake Me, Jaye Griffiths, a star of the BBC hit series Bugs and several British police and hospital dramas — The Bill, Doctors and Everyone — plays a mother of a boy who is written off by friends and society after he is diagnosed with cerebral palsy. The play documents the story of Nihal Armstrong as he fights back. Defiance and dignity of a different kind make up Shylock, and actor Guy Masterson weaves a story of Jews through history and literature. With these productions, the curtains rise on the theatre festival, Going Solo. The performances will be held in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore this month.
When William Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice, there were no Jews left in England. They had all been expelled 400 years ago,” says Guy Masterson as a preamble to discussing his play, Shylock. Masterson’s play sets the record straight about English literature’s most famous Jew by following the character from its inception. “Shakespeare had effectively stolen the story of Shylock from a 16th century tale of a Jewish moneylender who, when he stands up for his rights, is forced to denounce his religion and lose his possessions,” says Masterson, winner of the Olivier Award in 2010 for another play, Morecombe.
One of the more striking photographs of Shylock shows Masterson wearing a mask with a hooked nose and a red wig. “Jews were present in plays only as comic villains. They would appear in masks with hooked noses to make audiences laugh,” says the actor. The red hair has a more sinister reference — to Judas, the apostle who had betrayed Jesus Christ.
“I believe Shakespeare was writing an anti-racist play though in 1608, when the play was first seen, it may not have seemed that way,” says Masterson, who became an actor when the uncle he had been living with in Hollywood, Richard Burton, died. A veteran of 5,000 solo shows over 23 years, he has performed in India, in 1996, with Animal Farm and Under Milk Wood.
Don’t Wake Me: The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong
The play — that film-maker Gurinder Chadha has called “an epic love story” — revolves around a mother, portrayed by London-based actor Jaye Griffiths, her son, Nihal Armstrong, and their struggles and victories against cerebral palsy.
In the play, the mother recounts a life story that begins with Armstrong’s birth, when he was starved of oxygen, that damaged his brain and caused cerebral palsy, until his death at the age of 17. One of the poignant moments, says Griffiths, 51, is when Armstrong writes a poem, The Bluebell Sings Poetry, which his teacher sent for a competition. “This poem was by a boy who, doctors said, would never be more than a cabbage, that his future would be grim and grey. Yet, here he was, writing a poem,” says Griffiths. Over phone, she sounds overcome by emotion and, alternately, proud as she goes through the tough and triumphant phases of Armstrong’s life. “He was cheeky and naughty, a teenager with the devil in him,” she says.
Rahila Gupta, Armstrong’s real-life mother and writer of this play, says in a statement, “I lived in India for the first 19 years of my life. When the opportunity arose to take my work to the country, I jumped at it. There is nothing so sweet as going back ‘home’ (at some level, it still feels like home) with work. My play is about disability and discrimination, a conversation that really needs to happen in India.”
If These Spasms Could Speak
No single plot can contain these varied experiences . For the play, If These Spasms Could Speak, Edinburgh-based actor Robert Softley Gale decided to stitch individual narratives together into a patchwork of stories. The play covers a wide ground — from the adventures of a mother, whose body is deteriorating as she gets older, to that of a young woman who has scars on her body and is apprehensive of how a potential boyfriend might perceive these, until the day she meets a man who feels exactly the same way about himself. Yet another incident is about a man who loves to go for music festivals but has to rely on other people to take him.
“I got in to acting because I want to make an impact on how people see their fellow human beings,” says Gale, 34. “Much of my show plays with the idea of which parts are really ‘me’ and which parts are characters — by putting aside this idea of ‘acting’ or ‘pretending’, I hope to get audiences to engage with real people and real situations,”he adds.
A solo show enables an actor to address audiences directly and Gale is “excited about performing in India, where I imagine audiences will be quite different to those in the UK, Europe and Brazil where I have played so far”.