The d Monologues review. New Welsh review

REVIEW by Maria Apichella

NWR Issue r30

The ‘d’ Monologues

by Kaite O’Reilly

Why do we see so few disabled actors on our screens and stages? Why does our ableist society either patronise or ignore those whose bodies are different? These questions have been the focus of Katie O’Reilly’s work since she entered the entertainment industry in the 1980s. O’Reilly, an award-winning playwright, describes herself as a ‘working-class disabled immigrant’, blisteringly angry at the lack of body diversity in the creative arts. Inspired by Gandhi’s ‘be the change you want to see’, she spent ten years interviewing people with a range of disabilities, mainly in Wales and Singapore. These interviews informed her writing, and now her work has been compiled into a book. In these three productions, D/deaf and disabled characters ‘answer back’ in the form of monologues.

My favourite monologue from ‘In Water I’m Weightless’ is ‘Walkie Talkies’. A young wheel-chair using woman lives in an institution, but is planning on making a bid to live independently. She loves soaking in deep, hot baths. It makes her feel as weightless as a mermaid; but the ‘Walkie Talkies’, or carers, never let her in water any deeper than two inches. The speaker gives a scathing description of how the carers treat people with different abilities. Her friend, Gerald, ‘communicates by blinking / and directing his eyes to an alphabet board… He’s got an amazing brain,’ and can work out mathematical quandaries in seconds, but it takes a long time for him to communicate his discoveries, and the carers get impatient. However, they fawn all over John, who is visually impaired. When John asks if his tea is empty or half-full, they ‘go all noddy-headed’, thinking he is saying something profound when really he is asking if he needs a top-up. The speaker is having none of it: ‘They always think the blindies… have special powers – physic, the mystical third-eye opened….’ To her, John always ‘comes out with the biggest load of gobshite’, and is more ‘philosophically challenged’ than anything else. This bolshy, tell-it-as-it-is voice is just one example of a series of characters who are neither inspirational saints or villains. They are just their flawed, human selves.

O’Reilly wrote inExeunt Magazine: ‘I’ve tried to write complex, sexy, funny, dangerous, lovable, cheating, loyal, sensitive characters who are as fucked-up or sorted as their hearing, non-disabled counterparts.’ This is radical, considering the long history of using disabled characters as villains, and gets to the heart of O’Reilly’s second script, ‘Richard iii redux’. Shakespeare’s villainous Richard has scoliosis. This is meant to be a manifestation of his deviousness. The role has been played by many serious actors, such as Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellen. Costumes have been designed to make Richard’s condition grotesque. Everyone knows ‘blacking-up’ is wrong, so why is ‘crippling-up’ still acceptable? This production is a series of jarring monologues which juxtapose a ‘serious actor’ preparing to play Richard with a parallel set of monologues in which a young Welsh girl who has the same condition as Richard talks to her nan about wanting to be an actor. After watching ‘Richard III’ at school, the attitude of her peers’ changes. The play is teaching them to conflate her disability with having sinister character flaws. O’Reilly sends up theatre luvvies, while forcing readers to ponder the tendency to use disability as a metaphor.

The final script, ‘And Suddenly I Disappear’, shines a spotlight on individuals who feel invisible within society in the UK and Singapore. ‘I’m gone – / vanished – erased by your not looking, your I-see-you-but-I-don’t see-you eyes.’ This production is ‘multilingual and intercultural’. People from both countries volunteered their stories which were translated and used as a launching-pad for O’Reilly’s fictional monologues.

‘Hong Tou Jin 红头巾’is about a girl whose great-aunt was a Samsui: a Chinese immigrant, who came to Singapore during the Second World War to work. She did hard manual labor, which took a serious toll on her body. ‘[She] / became so bent from carrying bricks/ her bones relearned their shape and became / hunched, doubled over – a permeant physical impairment.’ However, she never felt sorry for herself or invited ‘others’ pity’; earning money for her family was empowering. This pride in sacrifice has been passed on to the next generation, and the speaker of the monologue describes her great-aunt as ‘my touchstone, one of the disabled / ancestors our city is built on.’ While one or two monologues in the book are a little heavyhanded, for example ‘Non-Believer’, which paints a caricature of a red-faced bigot calling for the return of the poorhouse, these monologues are ferocious in their attack on negative perceptions.

The ‘d’ Monologuesis startlingly funny, brutal and thought-provoking. It is comparable with theVagina Monologuesin its effort to change problematic representations. It should be made compulsory reading in schools.

Maria Apichella’s collection,Psalmody, was shortlisted for a Forward prize for Best First Collection and, in manuscript form, won the Melita Hume Poetry Prize.

Thanks to New Welsh Review.

Kaite O'Reilly