It’s been a week of peeling and unpeeling…. My play peeling headed off on tour in Taking Flight Theatre Company’s commended production, while performer and maker Gemma Prangle and I started unpeeling the creative process as part of her professional development from Arts Council England.
It was a few days of experiment for Gemma as I set her various writing tasks, working across a wide spectrum of styles including stimulating text to generate movement and physical scores. Phillip Zarrilli gave some vocal exercises and directorial advice as we workshopped Gemma’s starting points. I love this kind of work, where I’m part-dramaturg, part-tutor and part-mentor, and especially when, as in this case, the fruits of the explorations are exciting and filled with promise. I sent Gemma off with a series of further exercises to continue developing her considerable writing skills. I can’t wait to see what she’s going to create next.
During the excitement of exploration in the studio this week, there was also the excited gratification of positive critical responses to Elise Davison’s new production of peeling.
One of the greatest pleasures of being a playwright is the privilege of seeing other imaginations at work on your creative impulses. For Taking Flight’s new manifestation, I updated my script, not the first time I have revised the text. The play was originally written in 2002 for Jenny Sealey and Graeae, remounted in 2003 for Edinburgh and a European tour. I adapted it for BBC Radio 3 in the same year, co-directed by David Hunter and Jenny Sealey. A further production (Kirstie Davis for Forest Forge Theatre company) toured nationally in 2011, and there has been countless rehearsed readings in the US. Although I feel immensely privileged in having such a positive response to what in effect is an old play, I am also saddened that the issues of conflict, women’s autonomy over their own bodies and the problematic representation of difference in our theatres are as relevant as ever. When I set out on writing this play at the start of the new century and millennium, I never thought it would take so long for equality and diversity to reach our stages, if not our societies. The continued and increased interest in this play, particularly for its use of creative access, and the way I embedded audio description and sections of bilingualism (spoken/visual/projected language) into the fabric of the script, is therefore bitter-sweet. However, I congratulate Elise Davison and Beth House of Taking Flight and all the brilliant women whose talent, imagination and determination have brought this “fierce and funny” production to new audiences now.
The Guardian and The Stage reviews follow:
Fierce and funny trio storm the stage in vulva gowns – 4 stars. The Guardian review.
Alfa, Beaty and Coral are three deaf and disabled performers taking part in the chorus of a grandly titled four-hour postmodern epic, The Trojan Women: Then and Now. We watch while they sit and wait for their cues, talking, gossiping and exchanging confidences. Paused in the shadows while the “real actors continue with the real play”, they are defined and limited by the actions and designs of men, who are always offstage, elsewhere.
Elise Davison’s revival of Kaite O’Reilly’s play, originally staged in 2002, is fiercely clever and uncompromising. It packs in far more rhetorical audacity, theatrical richness and complexity of ideas than its 90-minute length would suggest. Often scathingly funny, Peeling is an accessible production that provocatively questions what is being made accessible, for whom and how. Who benefits from including a deaf and disabled ensemble, if the dressing rooms are inaccessible?
Initially appearing in vulva-embroidered ball gowns, designed by Becky Davies and made by Angharad Gamble, the actors Bea Webster, Ruth Curtis and Steph Lacey remain onstage throughout. They are shadowed by Erin Hutching as the stage manager who translates the trio’s spoken dialogue into British Sign Language. The dresses in turn are removed, but the peeling of the title also alludes to other forms of disrobing: of character, theatrical conventions, of the personal and societal expectations of disabled women. Towards its conclusion, one senses that history itself is also unravelling. We are brought to our current historical moment, laden with horrors. The grandiose “then and now” appears to be depressingly apt.
Produced by Taking Flight Theatre, who have been staging accessible productions in Wales for 10 years, Peeling is a show that insists it be viewed on its own terms. The peeling is not for your titillation. It sticks a middle finger up at paternalistic and woolly tick-box exercises in representation and inclusivity. Accessible theatre? Do it properly, it demands. Do it like this.
‘Thought provoking and entertaining’ – 4 stars. The stage review
After 10 years of creating outdoor plays involving D/deaf and physically disabled actors (performing in spaces as unlikely as woodland and castles), Taking Flight Theatre finally goes indoors with this new version of Kaite O’Reilly’s Peeling, embarking on a national theatre tour.
First performed in 2002 by Graeae, it’s a play within a play. Alfa (Bea Webster), Beaty (Ruth Curtis) and Coral (Steph Lacey) are three actors hovering backstage during a postmodern version of The Trojan Women: Then and Now. Cajoled by an irritable stage manager (Erin Hutching, also BSL-signing), the world-weary trio is convinced they’ve only been employed to tick the ‘disability box’ and to add weight to the equal opportunities monitoring form. They yearn to be an Andromache or Hecuba, each able to recite those character’s soliloquies – all while waiting to deliver their own minimal lines.
O’Reilly is an extraordinarily poetic playwright who specialises in contemporising Greek theatre, so the Trojan Women backdrop here allows her to explore epic themes of war from a feminist standpoint. Yet it’s her more earthy, acerbic wit that hits the notes best in Elise Davison’s confident production. Subjects as trivial as celebrity gossip vie with deeply poignant questions about choice for disabled women, around their own bodies and children.
It’s challenging, but also entertaining. The action is BSL-signed and audio-described throughout, all as a natural part of the onstage action, and there’s plenty of opportunity for the strong cast to send up theatre’s right-on but sometimes cursory attitude towards D/deaf and disabled talent.
I’m going on tour with the company on two dates this month, with a post-show discussion at Theatr Clwyd on 19th March and Aberystwyth Arts Centre on 26th March, where I believe David Rabey will be chairing the Q&A. The production will continue to tour Wales, Manchester and Oxford this Spring, with a tour of England planned for the autumn. Further details from Taking Flight.