I recently read an article in the Guardian about the new production of The Cripple of Inishmaan in the West End, with Daniel Radcliffe playing the lead role of Billy, the disabled boy living in a rural village on an island off the west coast of Ireland. The writer asked why it was acceptable for Daniel Radcliffe, an able-bodied actor, to play the part of a disabled character, and why prejudice against disabled actors remains rife.
While Radcliffe was undoubtedly cast because of his box-office draw and for commercial reasons, it made me want to go and see the play to make up my own mind.
When I found out that there was to be a live captioned performance of this play by STAGETEXT, it seemed a great opportunity for me to go and see it. We got the tickets directly through the theatre’s Box Office and booked seats, which were in an area of the theatre where you can see the captioning perfectly.
My wife and I went to see the matinee performance last Saturday at the Noel Coward Theatre. It is a beautiful old theatre in the heart of Covent Garden. We found our seats, which were in the front row of the Royal Circle. From there I had a fantastic view of the two captioning units, which were to the side of the stage, positioned at the perfect height on my eye level. As we sat down, we saw that there were quite a number of deaf and hard of hearing people sitting around us. We also met two of the founders of STAGETEXT there, Peter Pullan and Merfyn Williams, David Wise, The Treasurer, and the Chair, Richard Lee.
The play’s story is about a seventeen-year old disabled boy living with his aunts in rural Ireland in the 1930s, as his parents have died. He’s a sensitive, bookish boy, who is taunted, mocked and given the nickname ‘Cripple Billy’ by the locals. His aunts also don’t think he has much chance of getting a girlfriend or earning a decent living, so they imagine him being a burden on them for the rest of their lives. Despite this, when Billy hears that a Hollywood film crew are making a film about Ireland on the next island, he manages to con a local boatman to take him there, so he can make his fortune in Hollywood. I won’t divulge too much more of the plot, suffice to say that he ends up in Hollywood, leaving his aunts devastated and inconsolable that he’s gone.
The play is written in a very broad rural Irish dialect, the dialogue is very funny and the characters are really engaging and entertaining. Joanna, my wife, told me that as a hearing person, she also found it helpful to read the captions as she sometimes didn’t understand the broad Irish dialogue. Although they say many things, which are politically incorrect, they say it in such a way that it’s not at all offensive, just hilariously funny. For instance, when we find out that the Hollywood Director has rejected Billy for an able-bodied actor, we hear that he told Billy that he’d “rather see a normal actor, who can act than a cripple who can’t”.
I felt that Daniel Radcliffe acted the role of Billy brilliantly throughout the whole play. He was definitely the star performer. It can’t be easy playing a disabled character with an inflexible leg and withered arm, but he managed to do it very convincingly, despite the fact that he isn’t disabled. He also managed to make us empathise with him, and show that he had a devious, as well as a vulnerable, human side to him. He wanted the people around him just to call him “Billy” and not “Cripple Billy”, and he really earned the right to this acceptance at the end. When he told us that he’s crippled on the outside, but many people around him are crippled on the inside, he’s asking people to stop judging or pitying him based on prejudices about disabled people, as we’re all human beings at the end of the day. This is the key message of the play.
The supporting actors were very convincing and funny too. I particularly loved the character of the village gossip Johnnypateenmike played by Pat Shortt, especially in the scenes when he keeps trying to kill off his cantankerous alcoholic octogenarian mother ‘Mammy’ by plying her with drink. Sarah Greene was wonderful too as the sassy, aggressive village good-time girl Helen, who Billy had a crush on.
After the performance we went for a drink in a nearby pub with the men from STAGETEXT. I chatted to Peter about the importance of live captioning in the future as with an ageing population, there will be many more people with hearing loss so captioning will become very important to make the arts more accessible to them. I also had a pint of bitter and a chat with Merfyn. For me, it was great to meet the founders of STAGETEXT and see their enthusiasm and passion for captioned theatre. They are all deaf or hard of hearing, but they all shared a love of theatre and the arts, which weren’t fully accessible to them. They decided to set up STAGETEXT to make the arts accessible to other deaf, deafened and hard of hearing people through live captioning.
For me personally, going to see a play at the theatre with my wife through captioning has opened up a whole new world to me, which I thought would be closed to me. It’s brilliant to go and see a matinee and have a drink in a pub afterwards. Although I love going to the cinema (when I can actually find something I want to watch at the right time that is captioned), watching a live theatre performance can be electric and very moving. Going out to the theatre again has also really helped to build up my confidence again as it’s something I really look forward to and it is something that my wife and I can enjoy together.
This was definitely one of the best plays I’ve seen all year and I think Daniel Radcliffe is a brilliant young actor. I’d recommend anyone to go and see it. I hope one day, though, that the character of Billy will be played by a disabled actor, as I think that would send out an incredibly powerful message.