Some performances have a wider impact than you think they might and this was one of them. It’s also a good example of how the non-confrontational approach to making a big point can engage and enthuse.
Claire Cunningham identifies herself as a disabled artist and one who does amazing things on her crutches – but movement is only one component of Guide Gods. She is a researcher, singer, story teller, comedian and maker of tea. She freely admits she is not particularly religious, but many people are and she wanted to know what the major faiths and religions had to say about disability. Her approach to researching the area was to have tea with disabled members of various faiths. She recorded their answers and we hear them and her own observations in our ‘church’ on the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Or rather it’s a cross between a religious space and a front room with a shrine of china and family mementos at one end and an entrance through an arch of crutches at the other. To the left is composer and musician Derek Nisbet, sitting in front of an old harmonium and also playing the fiddle. And to the right a computer desk for transcription to video. Oh, and by the shrine somebody else is giving a sign language transcription of what is being said. 50 of us are arranged in a circle, on chairs or floor cushions.
Cunningham is based in Glasgow and her voice and demeanour is one of no-nonsense straightforward speaking coupled with impish fun. But she is reverential and serious in her handling of what comes over as a sad state of affairs, with her respondents describing how it is for them, largely unhappily accepting of being seen as wrong’uns when the norm is perceived ‘perfection’. It’s not the faiths which particularly have a view on the differently abled so much as the cultural ‘norms’ slung around them. I think it was Professor/inventor Heinz Wolff who said he was about making ‘Tools for Living’ rather than aids for the old or disabled. And as I get older myself I see precisely how life changes as you can’t do what you once did so ably and get perceived as in need of support and bother. You might, but you don’t want a big thing about it, just to be treated in the same way as somebody who happens to need to wear spectacles, or whatever.
All those cups of tea that Cunningham has are manifest as cups on the stage floor we are seated around. She slides them around and stacks them up – ciphers for the respondents – and she gingerly dances and spins around them and you think she will surely fall and break them. At other times her walking with crutches is painful watching – to see her carry a tray of tea and climb up or down a few stairs is both difficult but also uplifting at the sheer mechanical dexterity in manipulating and nudging wayward limbs and crutches to do her bidding, no matter how long it takes.
There is no big conclusion, other than perhaps that the disabled of many faiths have to cope with a poorly-understanding world just as much as their nonreligious counterparts. All should expect more and better of others. But primarily this is a rather inspirational 80-minute show/lecture that makes us all think about how we view and treat those with different abilities and skills.