Phil Morris attends a performance of And Suddenly I Disappear at the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff which comes from the mind of Kaite O’Reilly.
‘Can I risk revealing myself?’ The urgency and anxiety of that question lie at the heart of Kaite O’Reilly’s And Suddenly I Disappear, in which the social and emotional vulnerabilities of individuals within marginalised communities are examined with disarming frankness and biting wit. O’Reilly’s fictional ‘d’ monologues, inspired by interviews with people in the UK and Singapore, explores the politics of identity beyond the abstractions of liberal hand-wringing. Her radical insight is that what truly disables a person is not necessarily any physical impairment or mental health challenges they might have, but the willful ignorance, fearful hostility and patronising attitudes of a societal mainstream that would rather erase, forget or smooth-over difference, than accept it is an essential marker of the human condition.
During an impassioned, provocative and constantly stimulating production; Kaite O’Reilly and director Phillip Zarilli join the technical crew on stage, in full view of the audience, to operate multimedia equipment and facilitate accessibility. This stripped-down stage aesthetic self-consciously lays bare the mechanics of theatrical representation and reminds the audience throughout of the fictiveness of storytelling. This is no mere post-modernist game; understanding the processes of manufacturing and controlling narratives is crucial to interpreting these monologues. They each hinge on a question of power – the ability to tell your story is, after all, having the power to determine how you are perceived by others. At the very least, it is the power to frame the discussion about your public self. The clear intent of And Suddenly I Disappear is to make visible those who have been made invisible within two prosperous nations, the UK and Singapore, whose technological advancements appear to run counter to certain regressive tendencies inside each country with regard to difference. The play also aims to make visible those excluded from the histories of both countries, which are bound together by the legacy of imperialism.
In one monologue, the quietly compelling Grace Koo recounts the history of an elderly Singaporean woman who was disabled as a result of the intense rigours of manual labour she undertook for her colonial British masters. Over decades of literally back-breaking work, the woman’s spine was malformed by the sheer physical weight of imperialism. She’s poignantly described as “one of the disabled ancestors our city is built on.” In this instance, disability isn’t simply a question of the biological accident, it is a product of political and racist oppression. One of the many points of interest in O’Reilly’s ‘d’ monologues, is the manner in which various aspects of difference; disability, gender, sexuality, culture and ethnicity, are shown to be interrelated rather than separate and distinct – as one often finds in the tick-boxes of an equal opportunities form. A recurring theme throughout Kaite O’Reilly’s And Suddenly I Disappear, is how a relentless push for economic growth produces a materialist, consumer-driven society that grows fixated on homogeneity and conformity rather than plurality and diversity.
The economy of language and a deceptively simple, pared-down theatrical style are hallmarks of O’Reilly and Zarilli’s work. The lyricism is restrained, sentimentality is eschewed, and the poetics of word and image are austere. The dogged survival of generations of disabled people in the face of debilitating prejudice, both contemporary and historical, is likened to a river that “does not stop…always finding a way to go on.” What makes the work of the Llanarth Group so exciting, however, is their intellectual audacity coupled with sophisticated storytelling. Like many writers of her adoptive country, O’Reilly tackles topical social issues with indignant ire and compassion. But what makes her an important writer is that she does so with a fierce intelligence that has more than sufficient wattage to illuminate the big ideas.
The multiplicity of languages through which these ideas are discussed in And Suddenly I Disappear provides an extra layer of complexity. In addition to English and sign language, Mandarin and Cantonese is spoken, and all dialogue is simultaneously projected in written form. Moreover, there are sections of the play in which words are provided as audio descriptions to accompany non-verbal scenes. One particularly moving example features an unnamed man (played by Ramesh Meyyappan) who discovers the joys of expressing himself through signing, only for him to be slowly and painfully silenced by the intervention of two people who physically restrain his hands. Throughout these ‘d’ monologues, the hegemony and predominance of both the English language and the spoken word are frequently disrupted and challenged, so that we catch a glimpse of what a future might look like in which modes of communication are manifold and diverse. Zarilli’s commendably precise direction ensure that such polyphony and the interplay of ideas enlightens rather than confuses.
And Suddenly I Disappear demands that difference is celebrated and valued and not merely tolerated. It is at times bracingly impolite and savagely funny. Sara Beer is particularly impressive in these comic moments, delighting with an impression of a Chihuahua being whisked through town in a basket on a bicycle’s handlebars, or demonstrating nifty footwork with a few dance steps. The ensemble, however, is the star of the show; its chorus of different voices; Welsh and Asian-accented, speaking Mandarin/Cantonese, or Pidgin English, or sign-language, establishes a unity of medium and message for the production. Macsen McKay, making an impressively poised professional debut, embodies the cosy, well-meaning condescension of an able-bodied Welsh Nan; while Peter Sau portrays, with satirical relish, an egotistical actor ‘researching’ the lives of disabled people for a part he’s about to play.
O’Reilly recently published a collection of her works titled, Atypical Plays for Atypical Actors, and the audience at this year’s Unlimited Festival on London’s Southbank was appropriately atypical, with disabled people making up an appropriately large percentage of its number. The lived experiences related in O’Reilly’s ‘d’ monologues will no doubt have resonated with many in that audience, but that isn’t to suggest that her work will speak only to those in the disabled communities. These stories of difference – insisting on the visibility, and the reality, of people who have been ignored for millennia, and who are currently being ‘inabled’ by societal attitudes – will certainly have particular relevance and importance for the disabled. Yet as explorations of difference, the ‘d’ monologues have a wider significance for those in society’s mainstream, they examine what it is to be disabled but they might inform everyone as to what it is to be human.
And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore/UK ‘d’ Monologues by Kaite O’Reilly plays at the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff on the 11thand 12thof September.
Phil Morris is a regular contributor at Wales Arts Review.