There’s a bit of a Daniel Radcliffe obsession in our house at the moment. Sissyboo discovered the Harry Potter films about a year ago and has watched the first three. Many, many times. I am about to cave in and let her watch number 4, but if she ever finds that out Dobby dies, I will have to emigrate for the sake of my sanity.
My own recent Radcliffe obsession began after reading some tweets last week from Hemihelp, a terrific charity that supports young people with hemiplegia, a form of cerebral palsy. I tend to associate Daniel Radcliffe’s career (unfairly, perhaps) with escapism: whether it’s the seductive charms of teenage wizardry, the terrifying psychological gothic horror of The Woman in Black, the surreal humour of A Young Doctor’s Notebook, or the all-sing-all-dancing razzmatazz of his stint in the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. (I so wish I could have seen that. Don’t think I’ve said this on the blog before, but I LOVE musicals.)
But his latest role, I found out via Hemihelp’s Twitter feed, could not be more different; more real, in a sense. The play, a revival of Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan (1996), is a black comedy set in the 1930s Aran Islands. What could be more real than the precarious balance of cruelty and humour that constitutes black comedy? Oh yes: a black comedy in which some of the cruelty and humour is partly revealed through the vehicle of disability.
We have had oodles more darkness and even more fun in our lives since Mr Boo’s premature birth at 29 weeks gestation last year and all the associated challenges (developmental delay, epilepsy and likely quadriplegic cerebral palsy) it has brought him. If it weren’t for Mr Boo, I’d have greeted the news of Radcliffe’s new role as the titular ‘Cripple’ with the rueful interest of someone who has always loved the theatre but doesn’t go any more since having kids. But having Boo has given the performance a different resonance for me. It’s made me think. A lot. About disability and visibility. About difference and combating others’ fear of it. About my fears about others’ recognising Boo’s difference as he gets older. Of my greatest fear: how Boo will react when he develops a sense of his own difference.
Now I should preface what follows with a disclaimer: I don’t know the play and I am very unlikely to see it. Most of what I know has been gleaned from reviews and interviews. This means that I actually know very little. But from what I do know, I have been extremely impressed with Radcliffe’s account of his preparation for the role.
You see, the precise nature of Billy Claven’s disability is not specified in the play. Radcliffe has used what clues there are (that Billy’s disability was discernible from birth and affected one arm and leg) to identify his character as having hemiplegic cerebral palsy. In an interview for What’s On Stage, Radcliffe is quoted as saying that he wanted to make the condition ‘specific … rather than attempting some generalised “cripple” thing. To me, that is kind of offensive … That’s not doing justice to people who are disabled or to the character that Martin wrote’. Like I say, I haven’t seen the play, but from what I’ve read in some very positive reviews, Radcliffe’s doing the part and the play more than justice. But what about ‘people who are disabled’?
The casting of able-bodied actors as disabled characters is always politically contentious, for obvious and very good reasons. And it often gets embroiled in wider discussions about race and performance. You only need to see the recent furore about Blair Underwood being cast as Ironside in NBC’s new TV series to get a flavour for the contours of this debate and the anger such hiring decisions can provoke.
For what it’s worth, my own view is that while the debates about race and disability overlap where it comes to questions of performance, they are also quite different in several ways. The long history of white actors ‘blacking up’ to play Othello simply because playing Shakespeare was presumed to be a white man’s game is, in various ways, different from an actor without additional needs playing a character with them. Certain disabilities (although far from all and the severity of the condition is, of course, crucial) prevent some actors from undertaking the particularly physical rigours of theatrical work for many nights a week and several afternoons. That said, I strongly feel (even more strongly now than I have ever felt before) that there are nowhere near enough opportunities extended to trained or aspiring disabled actors. TV, theatre and film are so depressingly normative in so many ways.
Depressingly because life is so much richer and, indeed, messier than soaps or most box-office smashes lead us to believe. Depressingly also because the media and the arts so indelibly inform our preconceptions of the world around us. If the mirror they hold up to the world only reflects part of it, the consequences for those left in the shadows are unpalatable.
So when a well-known actor, unusually admired by generations of fans, does his research to inform his apparently excellent performance of a disabled person, I feel optimistic rather than a sense of despair or offence. Despite my regret that disabled actors are not as prominent in our arts culture as I would like (that able bodied actors play disabled parts routinely, but the reverse is rarely countenanced), l feel nonetheless energised that Radcliffe’s talent and influence will help to make a particular disability, one not too different from my son’s, more visible.
And visibility is so important. Because what we see changes how we see. Theatre, TV and film (not to mention advertising) have a huge role to play in altering perceptions and while they should not be made uniquely to bear the responsibility for combating prejudice or ignorance against disabled people (families, schools and, dare I say it, the government, are vital here) they can do so much to recalibrate our sense of the richness and diversity of human experience, of which disability is a part.
Odd though it may sound, one of the things that has most excited me about Daniel Radcliffe taking this part is how little has been made of the character’s disability in the reviews. His performance has been praised not as the performance of a disabled man, but as a performance. Disability is one aspect of this, but it is only one, just as hemiplegia is only one aspect of Billy Craven’s character, or cerebral palsy is of my son’s.
And this is where the real work of the performance lies and where theatre can do so much for people with additional needs, I think. By making visible something hidden as the script of McDonagh’s play strangely hides or mystifies Billy’s disability by refusing to name it, the thing – this marker of difference or strangeness – can become a part of the wider cultural fabric, of the overall texture of life in all its beautiful diversity.
This is the kind of world I want Boo to inhabit; a world where he is visible for all the right reasons and his contribution to this beautiful diversity is acknowledged. Oh, and by the way, if he wants to pursue a career in acting, I’d like him to have the opportunity to live out his ambitions, too.