Living with a label – old, chav, foreigner, disabled, gay… – is wretched. It’s draining and depressing to feel that all you are or all people see in you, is your ‘imperfection’. Richard Stott, a comedian whom I recently had a pleasure to watch on Hull Truck Theatre’s stage, created a show ‘Wretched’ about disability to question social prejudice, challenge the artistic world and its artificial expectations; and achieve self-purification, cathartic process of self-acceptance.
Knowing very little about Richard, as every respected researcher, I googled him. One thing that really struck me, while doing my little investigation, was the fact Richard in media is only described as a disabled artist. An actor born with Poland syndrome, a rare birth defect that left his left hand, arm and chest underdeveloped. Great! Poland syndrome, I’m thinking, what else do they blame us for? I thought that in post-Brexit Hull over 65% of population has Poland syndrome.
Cringe and laugh – two antagonistic emotions perfectly projected and planned by Richard, accompanied me throughout the performance. I knew that in the ancient times, due to lack of knowledge, disability was seen as a mark of the god’s displeasure, divine punishment upon parents. I knew that infants with any body deformation didn’t have a chance to survive and were thrown down the cliffs. I knew it, but I still laughed. Was it funny? Yes and no, but it was necessary to expose people’s stupidity, narrow minded attitudes, segregating approaches that unfortunately are still common today.
Richard takes the audience on a journey through his life – from childhood traumatic memories of never-ending surgeries improving his mobility, so frequent, that became a normality; to challenges he has been facing in the acting career. Some parts were hilarious – chasing girls in the school playground with webbed fingers, pretending that it’s contagious; using his super-long finger to get lost items out of the pavement cracks; a moment of enlightenment during the summer solstice at Stonehenge when he nearly digested ashes of someone’s dad. Some were very disturbing, distressing and upsetting. Those awkward situations of choosing the right moment to expose his disability when dating girls, those unforgettable and painful reminiscences of the final surgeries replacing his fingers with ‘useless toes’ and moving his shoulder blade muscles to front, to act as his pectoral muscle.
And those uncomfortable auditions…
“Look at the camera and say your name”
“Show your profile” (turn side on)
“Hold up your hands” …….. Yeah that part is where it all went wrong.
“Oh what’s wrong with that one mate?! Looks a bit weird”
Theatre industry, as many others, is focusing too much on appearance, beauty (as there was one clear definition on that), than a skill. Richard was either too disabled to act in certain productions, except of the beast or monster roles (clearly going back to Victorian times!) or not to be disabled enough. He, Richard with Poland syndrome, slight hunch and deformed hand was even turned down for a role of Richard III! But these failures, let downs, unsuccessful auditions didn’t bring him down. Again and again he was trying, fighting the system, people preconceptions and prejudice. He reminded me of Don Quixote, character created by Miguel des Cervantes. ‘Wretched’ is like tilting at the windmills – fighting an imaginary monster, fighting already lost combat. Laughing at his disability and accepting it, seem to be only one way for Richard Stott to win small battles in this unwinnable war. Hopefully or ironically, now in 2018 with the Arts Council Creative Case for Diversity, Richard should get more opportunities in the theatre world. However, will it be honest and truthful reflection of his acting skills or just box ticking exercise for organisations to diversify their cast?