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Saturday 21 December 2019

DIVERSITY

A tale full of sound and fury

Simon Barnes watched a group of people with learning difficulties perform Macbeth and came away wondering who taught him more, Shakespeare or the actors? 

By Simon Barnes

I have been father to a child with Down’s Syndrome for more than 18 years. As a result I have learned a million things about the world. So much is to be expected. But it still took me by surprise when Eddie and his friends revealed the genius of a playwright by the name of William Shakespeare.

One of the things that I have learned – and probably the most important – is that you should never underestimate people. Never make lazy assumptions. I must have forgotten that when Eddie told me that he was taking part in a production of Macbeth.

Eddie Barnes with Ben Sykes at the Seagull Theatre in Lowestoft

Every Monday he goes to FABBA, a theatre group for adults with learning difficulties. They meet at the Seagull Theatre in Lowestoft and every few months, they give a performance. Eddie has appeared in Hercules and The Wizard of Oz. He is involved in the ensemble stuff, and stepped from the crowd to play Cerberus. He was unforgettable in his three-headed dog-mask.

These performances would, I think – at least at first -be uneasy going for people unused to such a company. Many of the cast are, at first sight, the sort the average decent person hopes will sit somewhere else on the train and then feels horribly ashamed for thinking that way. There are pauses in the FABBA plays, frequent prompts, occasional lurches into spontaneity, actors overcome by the task and unable to speak or move, others who deliver lines with a sudden passion that catches the audience somewhere between embarrassment and empathy.

So it’s obviously Good For Them, and we turn up and we clap to validate the whole thing, and we are all – friends, relatives and supporters of individual cast members – pleased to do so. And the cast love the audience and relish the laughs that they can get with little effort from the sympathetic people sitting there in the dark in front of them. Eddie’s Cerberus – Woof! Woof! – got a round of applause, and afterwards he was so high we had to scrape him off the ceiling.

But when I heard that the next show was Macbeth, well, I rolled my eyes a little, and perhaps I made a jest about what kind of comical-tragical-historical-pastoral entertainment the players would come up with. What, then, was my greater error – underestimating Shakespeare or underestimating the actors of FABBA?

 

The Seagull Theatre has a nicely dated feel about it: a bar at the front where the audience/supporters/carers can meet or catch up. I am always struck by the number of good people there are in the world. A couple of wheelchairs, one or two clearly needy people. Inside, it’s a proper little theatre with a nice rake on the comfy seats, a setting that gives every production a little dignity. On any night there’s a good 30 or 40 of us: none of whom, like the cast, know exactly that will happen next.

The lights dim conventionally, and the actors are with us: no stage, no proscenium arch.

Simon Barnes’ son Eddie in an adaptation of Macbeth

They all wore black, but each with a piece of tartan cloth about the shoulder, enough to set the whole thing in context. A rum lot they are, too: some overweight, one or two stooped, one or two under-sized, one or two unusual in shape, some holding themselves awkwardly, Eddie and two or three or the others with the usual physical appearance of Down’s. A cast of 20-odd; Eddie at 18 is the youngest, most are in their 20s and 30s but a handful are older than that.

The challenges they all face in their lives are obvious from the start. There’s no hiding from that: and even if there was, they would give themselves away from the moment they spoke. No, they are not the people you meet every day. Talking can be hard: being understood can be harder. Nothing annoys Eddie more than when he has something important to discuss and I fail to understand.

 

The play begins with witches. When shall we three meet again? Best opening scene ever: the audience and the performers were all caught up in it at once. This is a cast that could get a laugh out of the death of Bambi’s mother: the point is that even at this early stage, they didn’t try. Their witches weren’t funny. They wanted them to be creepy. They wanted them to mean something.

What bloody man is that? Now here is a line – Duncan’s first, as he seeks news of the battle that is going on all round him – that can hardly fail to raise a laugh. Josh – a great mate of Eddie’s – didn’t go for the laugh, and nor did he get one. He was the king; he wanted to hear the news.

And so it went on. How close do you stick to the original text? A delicate balancing act: you mustn’t demoralise your cast with impossible tasks, especially of learning and comprehension – and yet you know that the words are the most powerful thing you have on your side. The director, Will Isgrove, struck a good balance: “Macbeth has so many beautiful lines, why try and write something else?” So Sebastian, a bespectacled Macbeth lurching step by step towards despair, gave the dagger speech as if it was a personal matter between himself and the dagger.

 

Anthony Powell used to say that the Macbeths were obviously a very happily married couple. Sebastian and Leanne, who played Lady Macbeth, didn’t see it that way at all: her bullying tone pushed Macbeth towards the fell deed, the slaying of the king. Josh died with great dignity and nothing became him in play like the leaving of it.

And this is one hell of a play. Please observe my careful choice of phrase here. I remember being spellbound (another mot juste, congratulate me) when I studied the play for O level. Our English teacher, an absurd little man called Mr Ashwin, insisted on playing Macbeth himself, but the play’s power was still inescapable even for a crowd of inky-fingered (we still used ink then) fourth-formers.

And the words: well, they stuck in my head and became part of me, part of the way I understand the world and the way I try and communicate to the world. What do you read, my lord? Words words words: those are the words of Hamlet, and it was my lord of words, the inky-fingered playwright who set them down.

 

Will has led FABBA groups through other Shakespeare performances, most recently King Lear; he has also done Hamlet, The  Tempest and A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. “They’re the best things that we do,” he said. “And perhaps the tragedies especially. Macbeth – it’s nasty, it’s not nice, and it carries a weight.

“The actors know that when they perform, they are the centre of the universe – and as they take on a play like Macbeth they know that they, too, carry a weight. And that’s a very powerful gift. They matter. They are in front of an audience and what they’re doing is being important – and that’s an important point of what we are doing. They are making the audience feel something.”

Eddie was playing one of Macduff’s children as well as doing the ensemble stuff. He spoke his lines in the child’s voice he has left behind, and then accepted his murder with some relish – but again with complete sincerity. No one laughed, no one was supposed to.

You will remember how the news of his death goes back to Scotland, to Macduff, and his desperate response: what? All my pretty chickens and their dam at fell swoop? Those lines are powerful all right: but the pause, yes, that was powerful too but I can’t write that down. It took a bit of nerve, a bit of real feeling, too. A hideous act had been done: the cast wanted you to understand that. Callum, who played Macduff, wanted to tell us that life can deal out some pretty terrible things: and you felt that every member of the cast knew that better than anybody on the other side of the lights.

Eddie (right) with Ben Sykes

It was here that the performance really came together. It was now clear that Macbeth was self-compelled to navigate from one dreadful act to the next. The acceptance of life’s inevitable awfulness filled the Seagull Theatre. And so Macbeth learned the news of the death of the hand-wringing Lady Macbeth …

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in the petty pace from day to day … and Sebastian spoke those lines, visibly taken with the wooing majesty of the words. I could have recited the speech along with him, but I couldn’t have delivered it better, for I was not there on stage in costume and in despair.

The shuddering, dreadful plot unwound, Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane, and Macbeth was slain by a man not of woman born, and in the applause afterwards, there was a sense of relief in coming back to the real world.

And we were all left with the thought: well, that Shakespeare, he’s bloody good, isn’t he? What bloody genius is that? But it wasn’t entirely clear how we should understand the nature of the experience.

 

Is the point that Shakespeare is so bloody good that his genius comes shining through like the sun, no matter who is telling the story, no matter who is strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage? Was it a great theatrical experience in spite of the nature of the cast? Or because of it?

It wasn’t a matter of the play being so good that even they couldn’t kill it. The cast brought something to the play that other actors couldn’t. The fear of evil haunts every one of us, challenged or not challenged – though we are all challenged, each in our own way. But life is tougher for some than for others. Having these truths shown to us by such a cast, with such words at their disposal, emphasises the inclusive nature of the play.

It was also a lesson in suffering and despair. Macbeth, once he had set out on the route pointed out by the witches, has no choice but to continue. He must now always be who he is: someone we in the audience both pity and despise. The members of the cast have met with the same reaction a million times in their own lives. They must tread the path they were born to walk: they have no other option.

But that night, they were all lords of the moment. There was an inversion taking place, a reversal of the natural order. That’s part of the play, and it’s there in the murder of a king. There’s the speech in which an old man sees a falcon, towering in her pride of place, that was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed: clearly, all of life has been turned upside down.

 

I have been to Riding for the Disabled groups, and seen wheelchair-bound children sitting on a horse – and for once they are looking down instead of looking up. Here, in the same sort of way, things were turned upside-down. The members of the cast were not listening to good advice from people who know better: they were telling us the important things of life: the big stuff. The stuff that actually matters. And we listened. We had no choice.

In the post-play euphoria, there were joyous congratulations flying about everywhere, and Eddie was higher than he had been even after giving the performance of a lifetime as Cerberus. They really had done something that night, and they knew it, too. You were marvellous, darling! But they bloody well were.

The house lights were extinguished now. Out, out brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow…

But this was not a cast of walking shadows. These were not people worth less than anybody else, whose lives have less meaning and less value. The validity of their own lives was made clear to everyone who was there, audience and cast alike, through the medium of a play by William Shakespeare called Macbeth … a tale full of sound and fury, signifying – well, practically everything, really.

Photographs for Tortoise by David Bebber

 

Further reading

On The Marsh by Simon Barnes with contributions from Edmund Barnes – modesty forbids…

Macbeth by William Shakespeare — always go back to the text!

The campaign to oppose cfDNA screening.

And viewing…

Actress and writer, Sally Phillips, On Challenging Misconceptions Around Down’s Syndrome

BBC Two’s A World Without Down’s Syndrome? Sally’s home video