This year, the Edinburgh International Festival sees the return of Purposeless Movements, a celebrated production which originally toured back in 2016, by Glasgow company Birds of Paradise (BoP) and its Artistic Director, Robert Softley Gale.
The blood-red, roughcast wall that serves as a screen for surtitles and other visuals already sets a striking look, paired with the four empty chairs that are lined up at the front of the stage. The powerful message that people with disabilities are just like everyone else, which is at the core of BoP’s vision, is already right at the top of the agenda as four men – Colin, Laurence, Pete and Phil – appear on stage.
Two are on their feet, two are in wheelchairs. As dance instructions appear on screen – with the familiar trigger of ‘5, 6, 7, 8…’ – the four men advance down the stage giving their versions of the dance moves. As they each offer their own spin on the choreography, you begin to realise that everyone creates their own version of a dance: you can’t help it. Already any preconceived notions of barriers between the performers and their audience begin to disappear.
With a gradation of speech ability and being ‘wobbly’ (a word is used frequently during Purposeless Movements) on show, the actors take turns to tell us that they have Cerebral Palsy (CP) – a condition that led doctors in the past to describe its various effects on movement and co-ordination as ‘purposeless movements’.
A diversity of obstacles – some existential, others unexpected – are faced and overcome by the performers. Pete Edwards movingly addresses being gay, while the rite of passage that is dating, sex, and even fatherhood is dealt with in a frank and unflinching manner by Philip Ryan. His depiction of a first sexual experience, performed alongside integrated BSL interpreter, Amy Cheskin, is touching in every sense of the world. Deeply-held male competitiveness and tribal behaviour are not shied away from and expressed through a fierce tumbling dance highlighting the performers’ capabilities.
Laced with raw humour, the show manages to remain self-aware and entertain with a list of irreverent jokes about disability that only those on the inside have license to tell. Mancunian Laurence Clark reveals comic moments of a Glasgow date and how a speech impediment can be capitalised on in an awkward social situation. We’re also reminded that if somebody’s speech sounds as if they’re drunk, perhaps they are.
A live soundtrack created by Scott Twynholm – played by him on keyboard with Jill O’Sullivan accompanying him on violin and guitar – adds fantastic atmosphere to this marvellously moving piece of accomplished physical theatre. Footage that mirrors the action on stage at times, while elsewhere creating striking silhouettes, adds a further dimension to this rounded show.
Purposeless Movements is arresting in its honesty about the frustration of struggling against your own body. Birds of Paradise seeks to have artists recognised for their excellence rather than being defined by their disability; this brilliantly seamless show does just that, celebrating both strength and vulnerability while taking preconceptions of disability to the edge.