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Emma J Hawkins, Take Up Thy Bed & Walk, Gaelle Mellis & Vitalstatistix Emma J Hawkins, Take Up Thy Bed & Walk, Gaelle Mellis & Vitalstatistix
photo Jennifer Greer Holmes
LOIS KEITH, IN HER BOOK TAKE UP THY BED AND WALK, CHARACTERISED VICTORIAN ATTITUDES TO DISABILITY IN FIVE WAYS: “(1) THERE IS NOTHING GOOD ABOUT BEING DISABLED; (2) DISABLED PEOPLE HAVE TO LEARN THE SAME QUALITIES OF SUBMISSIVE BEHAVIOUR THAT WOMEN HAVE ALWAYS HAD TO LEARN: PATIENCE, CHEERFULNESS AND MAKING THE BEST OF THINGS; (3) IMPAIRMENT CAN BE A PUNISHMENT FOR BAD BEHAVIOUR, FOR EVIL THOUGHTS, FOR NOT BEING A GOOD ENOUGH PERSON; (4) ALTHOUGH DISABLED PEOPLE SHOULD BE PITIED RATHER THAN PUNISHED, THEY CAN NEVER BE ACCEPTED; AND (5) THE IMPAIRMENT IS CURABLE. IF YOU WANT TO ENOUGH, IF YOU LOVE YOURSELF ENOUGH (BUT NOT MORE THAN YOU LOVE OTHERS), IF YOU BELIEVE IN GOD ENOUGH, YOU WILL BE CURED.”

Keith’s book was one of the main jumping-off points for the Vitalstatistix performance of the same name, conceived and created by artist Gaelle Mellis, who has a disability herself. Take Up Thy Bed & Walk is infused with interrogations of Victorian fear and loathing of the disabled. Adelaide has a rich history of works and performance groups (including Restless Dance Theatre and No Strings Attached Theatre of Disability) who have countered traditional narratives of disability, but Take Up Thy Bed & Walk is an attempt to push disabled arts practice beyond critique and towards advocacy and inclusivity. Its aim is an ambitious one: to embed accessibility within the dramaturgy and form of the work itself, by means of the incorporation of Auslan interpretation, projected dialogue and audio description.

Before the show, the audience is invited to explore the set and given handcrafted lanterns to navigate through the near-darkness. We steer ourselves around five cast-iron beds—one each for performers Emma J Hawkins, Kyra Kimpton, Michelle Ryan, Jo Dunbar and Gerry Shearim—and eerie reminders of other ages: a dolls’ house, a caged scorpion, battered Bibles. We seem to be in a Victorian institution for women, a notion strengthened by the clinical/penal costumes the performers wear as they mingle with us. After a time, we abandon our lanterns and are seated.

Jo Dunbar, Take Up Thy Bed & Walk, Gaelle Mellis & Vitalstatistix Jo Dunbar, Take Up Thy Bed & Walk, Gaelle Mellis & Vitalstatistix
photo Jennifer Greer Holmes
What follows is a shifting, heavily mediatised exploration of both how the able-bodied view the disabled, and how the disabled view themselves. The five performers play with Keith’s tenets in critical and ironic ways, using angular, sometimes frenzied choreography and spare, bold dialogue to draw together the Victorian intolerance of physical difference and the still-subordinating discourses around disability in our own age. There is rage and cheekiness—and a great deal of self-deprecating humour—in the narrative fragments which emerge, each one shot through with a punkish spirit of defiance: a bride told she must be ‘cured’ in time for her wedding day, a woman whose walking stick becomes a weapon, a karaoke singer who can do nothing but scream into the microphone.

The effect of all this though is, ultimately, to under- rather than overwhelm. It’s not hard to laud Take Up Thy Bed & Walk’s agenda, but its uneven shape and formal inconsistencies make for a frustrating experience. There is a struggle, never fully resolved, between the Victorian narrative strongly established in the beginning and the post-modern fragmentariness that defines the bulk of the show. I was left wondering whether a more disciplined dramaturgy might have more convincingly revealed the implications of Keith’s book, and made the ending—which seeks to bring the able-bodied and the disabled together in anticipation of a new, celebratory narrative—feel less contrived than it does.


Vitalstatistix: Take Up Thy Bed & Walk, creator, designer Gaelle Mellis, co-director Ingrid Voorendt, writer Hilary Bell, performers Jo Dunbar, Emma J Hawkins, Kyra Kimpton, Michelle Ryan, Gary Shearim, lighting design Geoff Cobham, sound design, music Zoë Barry, Jed Palmer, video production Heath Britton, Jennifer Greer Holmes, animation Heath Britton; Waterside, Port Adelaide, Oct 24-Nov 10

RealTime issue #112 Dec-Jan 2012 pg. 34

© Ben Brooker; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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