Everyone I know who went into making or writing about theatre was motivated to do so because they possessed a fundamental love of the art form and a basic belief that it was important it exists. But stick around in the industry long enough and on a day-to-day basis it can be overwhelmingly easy to lose track of those underlying instincts. A Spark and a Beating Heart by Firebird Theatre is the production to see for anyone who is feeling cynical about theatre, or wondering why it is that they’re still up at 2am clawing their way though another review, another funding application, another set of fundamentally depressing opinion pieces. More than that, A Spark and a Beating Heart is the production to see for anyone who is feeling exhausted from screaming their views into the face of a bitter wind, getting bashed and buffeted until they think perhaps the best course of action is being apolitical, disengaged and not voting.
This is a gorgeous piece of theatre that implicitly argues for the existence and potential of theatre, along with continued, active expressions of compassion for all members of society. The work tells the story of Firebird Theatre. The devising company of disabled actors have been making theatre in Bristol for 25 years. They started out as The Portway Players before changing their name to Firebird Theatre. A Spark and a Beating Heart weaves together the many myths of the firebird from cultures around the globe with the personal stories of actors from the company.
The stories told by the performers are unique to each individual, but there are some interlinking themes. All of the stories reflect on how having a disability – and being labelled as such – has affected their lives. Like everyone’s life stories, the ones included in the production are a mixture of happy and sad memories, with neither milked for emotion from the audience. Because of this, the unpleasant parts of the narrative are acutely poignant. These moments include memories by one of the older members of the cast, Christopher Wiltshire, of years spent living in a hospital, identified as a ‘patient’ not because of illness but because of having a disability. Patients in these hospitals, he recalls, would at times be beaten up and regularly punished by staff. They could never leave the premises. Another member of the cast, Penny Goater, revisits the time she was sent away to boarding school as it was the only school that would take disabled girls after all the local secondary schools refused to have a wheelchair-using pupil.
‘But that’s the past!’ I can hear people cry. Nowadays we treat disabled people as equals. Not all the stories, however, are from years gone by. A younger woman, Sharlie Yea, tells about how she worked hard to gain independence and to move out into her own flat, despite her parents’ worrying about not being on hand. She really liked her own space, she says, and living independently was great. But then the government cuts to disability allowance came and she couldn’t afford to go on living on her own. She was forced instead to move back in with her parents. One of the problems, she explains, is that at times she is described as not being disabled enough – as is the case with not being given a bus pass – but at others she is too disabled – most notably, Yea says, when she is told that she is too disabled to have an opinion.
On Monday, Theresa May was questioned by Cathy Mohan, a woman whose disability benefits have been severely cut, during an event in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. The Prime Minister managed to slither out of the questioning with promises of ‘lots of plans’ and a reply that appeared to conflate learning difficulties with mental health problems. I think it would be instructive for the Prime Minister, along with any and all who are thinking of voting for the Conservatives, to see a performance of A Spark and a Beating Heart directly before they head into the polling booth and choose where they want to place that decisive cross.
What is worth funding and what is not is a fraught topic. Along with people struggling to make their minds up on disability benefits, A Spark and a Beating Heart is also vital viewing for those who consider the arts, including theatre, a simple indulgence. The irony is that the more funding for the arts is cut, the more the arts indeed do become an indulgence – a pastime enjoyed only the wealthy. This production has at its core both the recognition and the proof of the many, many uses of theatre. The stage as a place to tell stories, communicate messages, reliving history. And the practice of performing theatre as the means of building microcosmic communities, groups that devise and create together. There’s nothing to be cynical about here. But there’s everything to keep working for.
For more information on Firebird Theatre, click here.