Review: Take Up Thy Bed & Walk

by Jane

This review contains mild spoilers. 

Take Up Thy Bed cast: (clockwise from top left) Gerry Shearim, Kyra Kimpton, Jo Dunbar, Emma J Hawkins & Michelle Ryan. Photo by Heath Britton.

At the opening of the double doors is Kyra Kimpton. She welcomes us into the space in small groups, where we are invited to walk around and discover. On five pillows on five beds screen projected short films animated through embroidery about young women, you can listen through headphones, read the captioning, read the braille, or, at one watch the Auslan interpretation; Michelle Ryan holds up embroidered sheets with sayings about women with disabilities; in one corner is a model of the set; in another is a live scorpion – don’t touch! reads the warning. No one says as much, but what we’re doing is part of a tactile introduction to the set and to the playing space: this functional introduction to the space presented for the blind and vision impaired before audio described shows is here part of the work itself.

Take Up Thy Bed & Walk is, by all accounts, the first “fully accessible” theatre work in Australia. While we have, in recent years, seen an increase in the amount of productions offering increased accessibility such as captioning and audio description, these performances are still infrequent in proportion to the larger season.

Take Up Thy Bed integrates access elements through the show: the four performers are joined by Auslan interpreter Gerry Shearim, who moves around the action; most of the dialogue is either captioned or projected behind the stage, with different fonts highlighting emphasis and meaning; the performers often audio describe their own actions; the music is heavy with base, reverberating through the chairs.

Conceived and led in creation by Gaelle Mellis, with co-direction by Ingrid Voorendt and text by Hilary Bell, Take Up Thy Bed integrates these access elements in a work which is used to explore perceptions of disability itself, and uses the form to talk about these access elements. In one scene Emma J Hawkins and Ryan describe the physical movements they are performing in a fight, as Kimpton and Jo Dunbar hold up chalk board which read: It’s okay, you’re not missing anything. They’re just audio-describing what they’re doing; in another Shearim signs a secret whispered to her by Ryan, the audio voice over tells us she is signing: only those who know sign language truly know what she is saying.

The show is aesthetically beautiful. In the wide playing space sit five beds: white cast iron, lace sheets, with maybe a few defining objects for the women’s characters. Behind them sit white floating curtains. The space is soft, delicate, to be protected; the beds reminiscent of images we’ve all seen of institutionalisation, and hiding people with a disability away from their families, from society. Geoff Cobham’s lighting design covers the set in shades of blues and purples; white spot lights shining on the women at first seemingly contained in their beds.

The work is a constant comment on the representation and perspectives placed upon people with a disability – particularly women with a disability. Bell’s text speaks to religious views on disability – that it is a blessed trial; we see Kimpton repeatedly yelling I’m sorry in increasing tones of distress and panic, she must repent; the four key performers sit on a bed and speak to the myths about where their disabilities orientated – a fish was imbedded in Ryan’s spine, Hawkins’ parents had too much sex during pregnancy; the four hold up screens which flash through words they’ve been described as – brave. An inspiration. Differently abled. 

The work is largely free from didactic criticism of perceptions and treatments, rather this criticism is inherent in the work: it is enough to represent these images to see how narrow, how isolating, how outdated (but, tragically, all too often present still) these images are. The very act of this work being created, in the claiming and taking up of space by these women is, in its own ways, a rebellion again perception.

The work moves through emotions, from the joyous claiming of this space, to highlights in criticism in painful treatments and painful perceptions. Largely movement based, all of the women are intriguing performers to watch. Kimpton has a beautiful physicality to the way she holds and moves her body in her dancing. Hawkins at times seems to hold too much energy for all the movement she exudes through the space, but then slows and stops the world of the play and the breaths of the audience as she stands, still in tension, mimicking the proverbial scorpion in her hand. Ryan, too, holds breaths as we watch writhing movements of her topless back, and brings laughter when her walking stick becomes a sworded weapon in celebratory fight with Hawkins. Dunbar’s energy is more steeped in a powered anger than the rest, her screaming into a microphone has all the right punk energy, with only the sound of air caught in passing. Shearim is both a participant within the space and interpreter slightly to the side of the piece, movement extending from her hands and through her body.

The work ends in a grand dancing finale of Ian Dury’s Spasticus Autisticus: his rambunctious anthem reclaiming the language surrounding disability. Suffering from Polio as a child, Dury wrote the song in defiance of perceptions on disability, and in particular what he saw as the patronising nature of the International Year of Disabled Persons. Highlighting this patronisation, the song was banned from the BBC for being offensive.

Without the didactic criticism through Take Up Thy Bed, though, the work fails to feel it has earned a dramatic peak in Spasticus Autisticus. Dury’s song is celebratory, but also outspoken in anger: in tempo, in ferocity of his voice, in a defiant standing up to yell. The women in Take Up Thy Bed, by contrast, are quieter. Their defiance is in the act of this piece of theatre at all: at times through the show they are angry, they yell, they run, they make a mess, yes. But the energy of Spasticus Autisticus feels like a different energy, sitting outside of the energy of the rest of the work. This mismatch in energy means the power of both Dury’s and Mellis’ statements become diluted; the sum is less than its parts.

Even as the cast come right up to the seating banks, asking audience members to dance, there is a great deal of hesitation. On invitation I did get up and dance dragging my date with me, and I felt separated from the audience – most of whom still sat and watched.

I wondered why less people got up than I would expect. Was it simply the make-up of the audience? Was it people not knowing and being familiar with Dury’s song? Without knowing the specific history of it, I can imagine getting up and dancing with it could be a big barrier.

I expect it was that the show didn’t work us into the furore of Dury. Through its non-didacticism, Take Up Thy Bed asks an audience to think, to contemplate, and it’s final number Spasticus Autisticus asks an audience to celebrate in defiance: but after the thinking, this celebration doesn’t come quite so easily. In the end, it’s not end this song that sticks; it is the thoughts, the images, the careful choreography and movement, of performers and performances, and of captions, of Auslan, of audio descriptions.

Vitalstatistix presents Take Up Thy Bed & Walk, conceived and led by Gaelle Mellis, created in collaboration with Ingrid Voorendt and Hilary Bell. Directed by Mellis and Voorendt, text by Bell, lighting design by Geoff Cobham, composition, musical arrangement and sound design by Zoe Barry and Jed Palmer, video production by Heath Britton and Jennifer Greer Holmes, creative producer Emma Webb, design assistance by Wendy Todd, voice, narration and audio description by Lucia van Sebille, Helen Sheldon, Lara Torr and Emma O’Neil, choreographic conrtibution by Larissa McGowan, musicians Belinda Gehlert, Hilary Klenig and Emily Tulloch (Zephyr Quartet); embrodery and textile work by Silvana Angelakis, Laura Haigh and Meghann Wilson. With Jo Dunbar, Emma J Hawkins, Kyra Kimpton, Michelle Ryan and Gerry Shearim. At the Waterside Workers Hall, Port Adelaide, until November 10. More information and tickets. 

Photo by Heath Britton.