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Nina Muehlemann reviews Fittings Multimedia Arts' 'The Ugly Spirit' / 2 September 2012

a drawing and photo montage of two babies in an old-fashioned pram

Imagine what it’s like always being one of a pair... Image courtesy Fittings

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We expect promenade theatre, a backstage tour through the 'secret spaces of the Queen Elizabeth Hall', but instead there is a party going on. It is someone’s birthday, so say the balloons, and performance artist David Hoyle, dressed in flowers, a flappy hat and high heels, hands out bubbly and strawberries as he welcomes the guests, which we are, apparently. He grins at us, but in a slightly discomforting way, saying: ‘Oh, lovely to have you here… Does anyone know that you are here?’ but all he receives for an answer are confused looks.

There are some people standing around in lab coats when we are ushered into the building. Inside the building, we are encouraged to explore the dark rooms with strange objects and toys in them. There are more people dressed in scientists’ or doctors’ uniforms, and an apparently confused young man who wanders around with a teddy bear under his arm. A lady dressed in white grabs my boyfriend for a dance, and then tells him her toes had frozen off, she can’t dance anymore. In the different rooms, we find open books, one of them showing a diary entry of Anne Frank.

There is haunting music coming from somewhere. In one of the dressing rooms, two women, one of them being pregnant, brush their hair. Suddenly the pregnant woman acknowledges us, the voyeurs, and hands me a postcard in German that has a reference to ‘Jews’ in it. Finally, the performance begins. 

Soprano Denise Leigh, presented as Lady Schwarzkopf, performs melancholically and absent-minded, as if she was a ghost. Then our host presents us the twins, and he is no longer charming and flamboyant: He is part mad scientist, part Nazi doctor, part freak show manager and part father-figure to the twins, Jessie and Bessie, who celebrate their birthday. Gareth Kieran Jones and Rachel Drazek, who narrate fragments of their disturbing story, portray the conjoined twins. Sometimes they behave like entertaining automatons, with a fake grin on their face, but mostly they tell us about their love-hate relationship with each other, longing for closeness and separation at the same time, and they tell us about babies who are taken away from their mothers, who are experimented on, and about their mother who was burned.  The Ugly Spirit tells us about all the darkest moments of disability history, lets us experience it, and as we leave the ‘birthday party’ with a ‘goodie bag’ in our hands, we are just glad that Sue Austin’s beautiful ‘Creating the Spectacle’ is flickering on the wall of the Southbank Centre and those moments are over.

Keywords: history of disabled people,performing arts