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Beware Of Pity

February 8, 2019

An excellent review from the Guardian.

“How could this creature think I would love her?”

That is what Hofmiller thinks when Edith reaches for him in Beware of Pity, a show by powerhouse theatre companies Complicité and the Schaubühne Berlin Ensemble.

Edith’s adoration of him is not surprising. After asking her to dance, Hofmiller was embarrassed to realise that she was “lame”, so he sent her so many roses it cost him a month of wages and began visiting her daily.

Watching Beware of Pity, which headlined this year’s Sydney festival, I didn’t fault Hofmiller for not loving Edith. She was a pathetic character. Listless, prone to anger and manipulation, she did little with her day but moan, have physical therapy and plot to kill herself – when she wasn’t pushing herself onto a man who did not love her, that is.

That’s because Edith was upholding the cardinal rule for characters with disability in drama: they must be wretched, sometimes pathetic, at best inspirational, and rarely objects of desire. Their presence is only to serve a protagonist’s journey – and either recover, or die.

I found Beware of Pity crushing. I don’t think I’ve ever been so hurt by a piece of art.

I’m an award-winning theatre director, I’ve travelled the globe seeing and making theatre. I’ve followed Complicité for years and have visited the Schaubühne twice. I was thrilled to see a work made by two of my favourite companies headlining this year’s Sydney festival. A show I directed was also in this year’s festival, my second under Wesley Enoch’s (usually salient and progressive) artistic directorship. These are some of the people I would most like to work with.

But as I watched one character, a doctor, describe his wife as “plain and blind” and explain that at least he had done one good thing in his life by marrying her, I wondered what on earth these theatremakers were thinking.

I live with a disability. I’ve had chronic rheumatoid arthritis since I was two years old. Many with disability fear they are unlovable, only worthy of pity: this fear was toyed with to tell the story of another character, a character without disability.

“Nothing about us, without us”: it’s a phrase that has been used by the disability community for decades. This work has been touring internationally and receiving four- and five-star reviews, with almost no commentary on its representation of disability (an excellent exception is Caroline Wake’s review in The Conversation). Would this form of representation be acceptable at the Sydney festival with any other minority group?

Theatre often uses historical texts in performance. In the best cases, the makers don’t accept the morals of the text without critique. Beware of Pity is based on a novel written in 1939, but I couldn’t find this critique in a show staged in 2019. McBurney is an excellent director of postmodern theatre. There are so many tools at his command that he could have used, should he have wanted, to allow Edith to slip from the frame that Hofmiller, both the protagonist and narrator of this work, set her in. Instead, the production only reinforced Hofmiller’s timeworn view.

Imagine if Edith had been played by a woman with a visible, physical disability, pathetic in Hofmiller’s view, judged for her actual physical limitations by him, while the actor is shown to be clearly capable for the benefit of the audience? It would result in a more complete picture of disability.

This is not just a matter of a few hurt feelings and bruised egos; the way disability is understood by the broader public affects me every day of my life.

Modern thinking around disability looks to a social model: people are disabled by society’s structures, the stairs they can’t climb and the doors a wheelchair can’t fit though are simple examples. It’s the job we can’t get, because having a disability is viewed as an inherent weakness rather than living with it being a demonstration of strength. Narratives like those in Beware of Pity foster the assumption that people with disability are only ever passive participants in other people’s stories, and that our disabilities rule our lives.

Many days, the most difficult part of the disease I have is not the pain or stiffness, surgeries, side-effects of medication, or extreme cost; it’s the administration and time it takes to look after myself in a medical system that assumes I don’t have the same kinds of responsibilities to work or family as anyone else. There is no part of the system that allows for patients to be overseas working, to have deadlines or performances or responsibilities to anything but management of their disability. The assumption is that, like Edith, people with disabilities exist only in relation to our disabilities; small lives waiting to recover.

Representation matters. In 2017, I travelled the country looking for a young trans man to play a key role in Hir at Belvoir. It took time and money, and it was a risk putting an inexperienced actor on such a well-loved stage. But we couldn’t have made the work without Kurt Pimblett, what he brought to the rehearsal room, and his honest and heartfelt performance.

Directors have a responsibility to the people they represent on stage, particularly when representing people from a minority group. This is not a limitation; it makes the work better. Beware of Pity would have been a far more compelling work had people with visible, physical disabilities been on stage. It is heartening to see Sydney festival have recently announced a new disability programming initiative. Because many of us are not only alive, we are thriving. If this was more visible then there would be structures in place to support not only our recovering or our dying, but also our living.

Anthea Williams is an Australian theatre director and dramaturg

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