Writer: Rahila Gupta
Director: Guy Slater
Reviewer: Harry Stern
Theatre does tragedy. Every day somewhere in the world a King Lear goes mad, Macbeth’s vaulting ambition propels him towards his downfall and countless other tragic figures speed to their inevitable decline. Done well it is genuinely affecting, life-changing even. But when it is the tragedy of a child that is being told and when that tragedy is drawn from real, desperately painful life, theatre has a far greater responsibility. Perversely, the challenge lies in neither cheapening the experience by over-dramatising it, nor undervaluing it by attaching a veneer of theatrical cynicism. In either case, respect would not be paid.
Luckily for us, but inevitably excruciatingly for her, this verse solo-drama was written by the child’s mother. Though marginally stylised by the ballad nature of the writing, Gupta offers an unvarnished account that is played with great truth, sensitivity and tact by the admirable Jaye Griffiths. It is, though, a very difficult experience that left a number of the audience in tears. And no wonder.
Nihal Armstrong was born in 1984 after a difficult birth that ended in a Caesarian section after which he spent nearly a month in a special care baby unit as he struggled for life. From such an inauspicious start his unfolding brief existence was full of a plethora of experience. Some was joyful, much was painful, all of it was magnified in stature by the fact that he was diagnosed as having Cerebral Palsy. Gupta’s efforts to offer him a life that was more than bearable were faced at every turn with equal amounts of institutional ignorance, ineptitude, prejudice and enlightenment. From birth to grave, from hospital to school to courtroom, society’s inability to respond to such a tragedy in a coherent and consistent way seems to have been a hallmark of Nihal’s seventeen years of life.
While Gupta is angry, at times very, very angry, at this uneven response, she has fashioned a love story between herself and her child. It is, of course, intensely personal and the metaphor she chooses to describe their liaison is one of a knot. “Oh my darling my little love./ Tying and untying our bond./ Cannot hold you nor let you go./ Can’t stand and fight nor abscond.” That knot and the mother’s refusal to bow to professional advice, discovers the soul and heart of a sensitive and spirited poet in the misshapen body of her son. Her persistence and faith resulted in a brief flowering of a personality that, too easily, could never have seen the light. That achievement makes the rest of the mother’s testimony bearable. Although it was transient and cruelly short, Nihal’s emergence from the darkness of institutional incompetence was a matter of celebration. Gupta celebrates with joy and with humour. “Disabled and proud, left no room for disabled and pissed off.”
The play is tough on its audience and very tough on the single performer. The technical challenges for Griffiths are huge but the responsibilities are even bigger. She faces up to those responsibilities with great bravery. She does not draw back from the brink. She is tender, angry, forlorn and wickedly funny as the mother accompanies the son through his life while her own life and relationships are put under the most extreme pressure. It isn’t so much of a tour de force performance as an embodiment of incomporable experience. Played on a simple set by Elroy Ashmore and directed with equal amounts of tact by Guy Slater, this is, without doubt, a piece of work that will affect every audience that sees it.
Nor should we cavil about whether it is a story that should be told from the stage. That decision can only belong to the mother who produced both child and the ballad that his life inspired.