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> > > If These Spasms Could Speak by Robert Softley

23 March 2014

photo of a young male actor lying down. He is naked down to the waist

'If These Spasms Could Speak' is written and performed by Robert Softley

'Informed', 'irreverent' and 'humane' are three words used on the SICK! Festival brochure welcome page to introduce the aims of the festival in shining a light on issues that often remain hidden, taboo or misunderstood in daily life. Colin Hambrook explains why 'If These Spasms Could Speak' fits the bill admirably.

Addressing his audience candidly from the confines of a very large white armchair set simply on a bare stage Softley's hour-long performance piece gives an affirmative, truthful and immensely funny account of what it's like to live with a severe physical impairment.

A core theme running through 'Spasms' is not only how much the bodies of physically disabled people become the property of other people, e.g. personal assistants, doctors, even random strangers, but also how much - through the effect of disabled peoples' assumed dependency - the average person on the street believes they've a right to either stare, or to make crass comment on the individuals impairment.

It's those weird situations that are so unbelievable and yet all too true, as in the time Softley relates, when a doctor randomly grilled him with a litany of questions about how much control he has over certain bodily functions - when he was actually in the hospital to visit his brother. Softley takes the truth, teases it out and stretches it with an endearing charm and humour that leads him from responding to the off-stage voice of the doctors commands, to engage members of the audience in participatory acts that are both shocking and hilarious. 

Softley illustrates beautifully what possession and control of his body means in his everyday life (and in the lives of the four other disabled people whose stories he is conveying)… and in so doing the narratives lead on subtly, to making his audience think about how much planning must go into the lives of physically disabled people - not least when it comes to sex. And there is a fair bit of sex in Spasms. Without being gratuitous, discussion about sex adds depth and breadth whilst countering the stereotypical assumption that physically disabled people must be asexual. And somehow this point is made more poignant through the fact that Softley strips down just enough to let us know how sensual he can be with his captivating smile and compelling physicality.

The key to why 'Spasms' works so well is the wry humour that underpins much of the storytelling of disabled people talking about how they feel about their bodies. The motivation point for writing 'Spasms' was the tragic story of a young Rugby player who took his life after becoming a disabled person, following an accident on the pitch. Without being polemical Softley asks us to consider how we might change attitudes enough to think not how we, as a society, might want to assist suicide, but how we might want to assist the prevention of suicide.

After performing Spasms fairly solidly for over two years Softley gives the impression he is ready to take up the mantle of new projects (he recently took on the role of Artistic Director at Glasgow-based Birds of Paradise Theatre with whom he has co-directed the sex comedy Wendy Hoose, which is currently touring Scotland). 

His performance was not without conviction, but could have been slower. He has performed the show a lot and clearly knows the script so well that it seemed, perhaps to run away from him a little. At least I wanted him to slow down, the better to follow the stories.

He opens with an exhortation to his audience to tell him straight if we don't understand anything he says on account of his speech impairment. It's a challenge and an offer to the audience to break through the spell of Softley's performance to get him to explain further what's happening. If I were more strident I would have interrupted and I wondered if audience members had interjected in any shows and what impact that had had on those nights?

Even if he puts Spasms down for the time being I hope it is a project that Softley returns to - if not necessarily in the same form. Finding innovative ways to document disabled peoples' lives through our own words has to be a valuable thing to counter centuries of having little or no control how we are represented. Spasms is an intelligent piece of disability arts presented in a way that is both powerful and entertaining. As we move towards the proposed dismantling of the Independent Living Fund in 2015, its import as piece of political theatre will become more evident in the current climate which threatens to take a basic right of access away from physically disabled people and to make them more invisible.

Those three words could be used admirably to describe Softley's hour-long performance piece, addressing his audience candidly from the confines of a very large white armchair set simply on a bare stage.

A core theme running through Spasms is not only how much the bodies of physically disabled people become the property of other people, e.g. personal assistants, doctors, even random strangers, but also how much - through the effect of disabled peoples' assumed dependency - the average person on the street believes they've a right to either stare, or to make crass comment on the individuals impairment.

It's those weird situations that are so unbelievable and yet all too true, as in the time Softley relates, when a doctor randomly grilled him with a litany of questions about how much control he has over certain bodily functions - when he was actually in the hospital to visit his brother. Softley takes the truth, teases it out and stretches it with an endearing charm and humour that leads him from responding to the off-stage voice of the doctors commands, to engage members of the audience in participatory acts that are both shocking and hilarious. 

Softley illustrates beautifully what possession and control of his body means in his everyday life (and in the lives of the four other disabled people whose stories he is conveying)… and in so doing the narratives lead on subtly, to making his audience think about how much planning must go into the lives of physically disabled people - not least when it comes to sex. And there is a fair bit of sex in Spasms. Without being gratuitous, discussion about sex is there to to add to the depth and breadth of the performance and in so doing Softley counters the stereotypical assumption that physically disabled people must be asexual. And somehow this point is made more poignant through the fact that Softley strips down just enough to let us know how sensual he can be with his captivating smile and compelling physicality.

The key to why Spasms works so well is the wry humour that underpins much of the storytelling of disabled people talking about how they feel about their bodies. The motivation point for writing Spasms was the tragic story of a young Rugby player who took his life after becoming a disabled person, following an accident on the pitch. Without being polemical Softley asks us to consider how we might change attitudes enough to think not how we, as a society, might want to assist suicide, but how we might want to assist the prevention of suicide.

After performing Spasms fairly solidly for over two years Softley gives the impression he is ready to take up the mantle of new projects (he recently took on the role of Artistic Director at Glasgow-based Birds of Paradise Theatre with whom he has co-directed the sex comedy Wendy Hoose, which is currently touring Scotland). 

His performance last night was not without conviction, but could have been slower. He has performed the show so much and clearly knows the script so well that it seemed, perhaps to run away from him a little. At least I wanted him to slow down, the better to follow the stories. He opens with an exhortation to the audience to tell him straight if we don't understand anything he says on account of his speech impediment. It's a challenge and an offer to the audience to break the through the spell of Softley's performance to get him to explain further what's happening. If I were more strident I would have interrupted and I wondered if audience members had interjected in any shows and what impact that had had on those nights?

Even if he puts Spasms down for the time being I hope it is a project that Softley returns to - if not necessarily in the same form. Finding innovative ways to document disabled peoples' lives through our own words has to be a valuable thing to counter centuries of having little or no control over how we are represented.

'Spasms...' is an intelligent piece of disability arts presented in a way that is both powerful and entertaining. As we move towards the proposed dismantling of the Independent Living Fund in 2015, its import as piece of political theatre will become more evident in the current climate which threatens to take a basic right of access to work and leisure, away from physically disabled people.

Please click on this link to visit Robert Softley's website

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