I remember my father once trying to teach me how to count to ten in the Irish language. Dad and I were nothing if not strongly alike in our total impatience over absolutely everything, so we didn’t get anywhere. I grew up knowing full well I’m a ‘plastic Paddy’ and a lot of that is, frankly, down to my Dad’s choice to leave Northern Ireland. I was fully ready to reckon with that part of my upbringing when watching Translations at the National Theatre. Unfortunately, thanks to production choices relating to a specific character, I never got that far.
Translations opens on Sarah being encouraged to speak her name. Sarah is described in the script as a ‘waif’, ‘anywhere between 18 and 35’. The vagueness doesn’t stop there: although it’s never spelled out exactly what, Sarah has some kind of condition affecting her ability to speak. Given the script’s presentation (specifically the fact Sarah can physically speak) it’s most likely to either be selective mutism or autism, but that’s only my best educated guess based on the significant symptom overlaps. That said, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to call her ‘neurodiverse’.
In the National production, Sarah is introduced being ‘taught’ to speak as in the script. Except she clearly already knows how to speak. She’s actually being forced into it. She is shouted at and cajoled into it by Manus, a character we quickly understand through positioning is to be viewed as a sympathetic protagonist. This is his establishing character moment, not hers; Manus is a compassionate character. He shouts, he cajoles, he forces her to communicate on his terms alone, only because he cares. Sound familiar? It is an act of violence against Sarah which is sustained throughout Translations, but which the production insists we recognise as an act of caring, compassion and empowerment on Manus’s part. Moreover, it is an act of violence which this production never recognises as such, because the team behind it doesn’t appear to have made any effort to understand how these disabilities actually work.
‘Masking’ is a term you hear a lot within neurodiverse and differently-abled circles. Essentially it is the practice of performing as ‘normal’, as defined by the neurotypical and non-disabled, by suppressing the specific traits related to a condition or disability. It’s particularly prevalent in autism spectrum conditions and invisible disabilities – e.g. forcing ourselves to make eye contact, or learning how to appear to continue a conversation when we are overstimulated and exhausted. It is never something done truly out of choice; we are told that this is what we must do in order to achieve, to be accepted, to be loved. We are taught that if we ever drop the act we deserve any abuse we get, and might get dragged out of a cinema for daring to be ourselves. It is constant, it is relentless, and it is exhausting.
The team behind Translations doesn’t seem to realise that, in showing Sarah as being berated into speaking in the manner she is, she is forced to perform this masking behaviour. She is routinely infantalised, her entirely legitimate adult desires towards Manus dismissed without a second thought as those of a child, because of her disability. They depict her as worthy of affection and caring only if she adopts this masking behaviour, shown in the way Manus actively rejects her flowers until she speaks. Worst of all, the position seems to be that being forced to adopt masking behaviour is empowering, and having the ability to mask taken away is disenfranchising. It does not understand that the opposite is the reality, because nobody involved has thought to ask. Masking makes us less able to ask for help, share our feelings or have needs fulfilled; where we are often already wounded and vulnerable, we are made to feel we must hide it even further away. Every day requires a pitch-perfect performance; every conversation, a potential warzone. Ironic, considering the entire play is about the imposition of language as an act of violence, no?
This production team does not understand how Manus’s behaviour constitutes the act of violence against Sarah that it is; and so to them, it’s not. The impact of this fundamental lack of knowledge is in fact the complete opposite of that intended, permeating through the entire production. We are supposed to understand Manus’s actions in ‘teaching’ her to speak as caring and compassionate, and Captain Lancey’s intimidation of Sarah into silence as an unspeakable act of violence. But when Sarah was finally in a position where she could no longer speak, where Owen speaks for her, all I felt was relief for her. No longer were her own people enacting this emotional violence upon her. This is not how this exchange is supposed to be read, and this is how badly wrong this production has got it.
I personally suspect this is exactly why Friel put Sarah in Translations. To ask the question: how can we say it is terrible what the English did to the Irish, when we ourselves refuse to accept somebody who communicates in a different way? Except this production clearly doesn’t understand that this is the question, and so never poses it. Instead it’s happy merely to play up to broad caricatures, with little regard for how those caricatures affect the people they claim to depict.
In 2018, ‘that’s what the script says’ is no longer a valid excuse for presenting a differently-abled character as the worst caricature of that condition. The most that can be gleaned from the script is that Sarah has severe anxiety about speaking, manifesting in mutism and a severe stutter when she does talk. It does not outline the over-exaggerated facial expressions that this production has apparently directed its actress to perform. To be clear, I do think this was a production team decision; it’s just one I really struggle to get my head around, to understand how this is where it ended up. Sarah was the character I was most looking forward to seeing on stage; within five seconds, however, it was obvious that this production’s interpretation of her had made little effort to genuinely understand the character. It also feels like nobody involved had any knowledge, or any real interest, in representing the character properly beyond the worst stereotypes.
To be clear, I am not attacking Michelle Fox, or any actor in fact, for taking a role and performing it to the best of her ability within the parameters of the production. Times are tough, and we can’t all be Ed Skrein (genuinely, no shade, blacklisting is real and I’ve probably done it to myself here). I do personally feel that any number of (openly) differently-abled actresses might have provided a richer interpretation that doesn’t start and end at disability, just because of having lived experiences. That kind of knowledge could have meant a depiction of not the negatives, but the positives – the rich inner imagination, the ingenuity needed to communicate through other means. That’s all been lost, or rather deemed unimportant to begin with. That is not Fox’s fault; that is the production team’s decision to cast an able (to my best knowledge) actor as a differently-abled character, and to direct her in such a broad strokes manner. It’s that decision we should question at every turn. Considering the National Theatre launched an initiative to provide more opportunities to differently-abled actors not even a year ago, it’s short-sighted, and makes it feel like such a scheme is merely lip service.
Disability is not a sum total character trait to be performed, the entirety of a person’s character. This production of Translations seems to have treated it as though it is. And in doing so it does a huge disservice to its script, its actress, and the community it purports to represent on stage. Because this isn’t representation at all; at times, watching it, it felt like mockery.
There’s a certain type of autism presentation in drama. We all know it: an obviously neurotypical actor performing a neurodiverse role, almost invariably white, male, middle class, everything performed as very blunt, monotone, lacking in empathy and refusing to make eye contact. He’s also totes a genius in something like true crime. They’re usually paired with a neurotypical character who is either ‘inspired’ by or ‘manages’ this character. It looks just enough like how people with no understanding of the reality think differently-abled people behave, that it gets praised as a ‘realistic’ and ‘daring’ performance. Meanwhile it ignores the lived experiences of people with the condition, condemning those lived experiences as ‘unrealistic’ and shutting actually (openly) neurodiverse actors out of roles that claim to represent us.
Jamie Beddard calls the phenomenon of able-bodied actors taking on disabled characters “cripping up”. When it comes to depictions of autism like the one I’ve described above, it’s far out of the reality of what autism actually is, but with the neat effect of sort of looking a bit like what some people think neurodiversity looks like, so they don’t have to actually engage. The impact of that type of performance upon people like me is to other us, dehumanise us. They have a terrible life. Why don’t they just not behave like that. Thank God I’m not that. It’s not a person that’s shown; it’s a symbol, an object, an abstract idea.
That’s how I felt watching this production. It’s the same way I often feel nowadays when I see such performances, but for some reason this time it hit home in a way I wasn’t prepared for. I can’t recognise this symbol on stage, not even a little bit. But I know it’s supposed to represent me. I know I’m supposed to be desperately grateful. And the fact I’m so hurt by it is just a sign of how ungrateful I really must be.
The five worst words anybody on the autism spectrum, or with an invisible disability, can hear? “But you seem so normal.” Implying we’re not, never were, and never will be. That we have never been truly seen. It’s that mentality which the team behind Translations appears to have no understanding of – the well-meaning comments that still berate, still constitute othering at every turn. In failing to understand it, without realising they perpetuate it, develop it, consolidate it.
This production of Translations doesn’t appear to comprehend the impact its treatment of Sarah has upon differently-abled people. What’s worse, it doesn’t seem to care. There was an opportunity to reinterpret the text for a 2018 audience, to portray Sarah as a character in her own right, someone whose affections towards Manus are equally as valid as the ones Manus shows towards Máire, or between Máire and Yolland. Instead, it regresses. Sarah’s feelings are depicted as childish things to be ignored, dismissed, invalidated, except and only if they can serve another character’s plot development, and conditional upon her adopting masking behaviour without any effort made towards her. And it positions them in this way because of her status as a differently-abled individual. Where Manus, Máire and Yolland’s hopes and desires are acknowledged as valid, Sarah’s are denied outright – not by Translations as a script, but by this production and its choices. Above all else, I just feel like that’s a huge shame.
One of the last serious conversations I had with my Dad (insofar as we ever had serious conversations about anything) was about disclosing my diagnosis to people. He worried I was treated differently for being open about it, in careers and in life. That any calling out of unfair treatment might see me relegated to, at best, special status; that I would be prevented from achieving all I could for doing so. I knew he remembered what it was to be Irish in the UK during the 70s and 80s; to be faced with signs screaming ‘No dogs, no blacks and no Irish’, to never quite know the truth behind people’s treatment of him. I told him the world was changing; it was much easier to be open nowadays, people are much more willing to understand and don’t indulge these stereotypes anymore. But if, on the biggest stage of the country’s national theatre, this is how people like me are regarded, depicted and made to feel – as stereotypes, as caricatures, as things – I’m no longer so sure about that.
Productions like Translations at the National seem to run on treating differently-abled characters as plot devices, not genuine characters worthy of their own agency, hopes and dreams. This production isn’t the first, and won’t be the last, although it should be. I can’t personally indulge in the praise this show is getting, despite the personal relevance of Ireland vs. England, despite the beautiful stage, despite the fact I am a fan of certain actors in the cast, because I can’t shake the feeling that it has earned that praise by dehumanising people like me. Every time someone calls it ‘beautiful’, I realise they will always view me – the real me, not the social-media friendly one – as anything but beautiful. Maybe not openly. Maybe not even consciously. But somewhere, in the back of their minds, will be that little nugget they use to codify what they understand as ‘neurodiverse’: ‘Oh, yeah, like that girl in that show.’ I watch these shows, with active choices made to erase us in favour of badly formed stereotypes, and just want to scream from the rooftops, on behalf of all the people like me and all the ones to come, for all the mainstream UK creative industries to hear:
We are people too. Please stop doing this to us. It hurts us.
ETA 14th June 2018:
I’ve tidied this up a bit to make clearer this is my personal experience, and that I feel the issues I have are borne out of direction (/industry?!) choices above all else.
ETA (again) 28th June 2018: to remove a term I really had no business using despite my clumsy white privilege attempts to contextualise it, and should’ve just not. Sincere apologies to anybody I offended with it, and particularly to the friend who called me out on it.
ETA (again (again) 7th August 2018: I have received a response from the National Theatre, as follows:
“I have now had the chance to speak with Shane, the Staff Director on Translations. Shane is a key part of the creative team and he worked closely with the director Ian Rickson on Translations throughout the rehearsal process. He continued to work with the cast after the production opened. I spoke to Shane following your email and he has shed some light on the decisions the creative team made around the representation of the character Sarah.
The team looked at what Brain Friel suggested in the script for Sarah as a character. While exploring potential options they decided that Sarah was most likely to have a form of Selective Mutism. To explore how they could best represent a character with this condition, they worked with two specialists. First Shane and Ian worked with Lindsay Whittington of SMiRA (selectivemutism.org.uk) to contextualise the condition and understand some of the reasons why an individual may develop selective mutism.
After that Annie Morrison, a Speech and Language Therapist, worked with the actors and creative team in rehearsal to explore the complex emotional, physical and psychological challenges that Sarah would have faced.
We hope this goes some way to reassure you that a huge amount of thought, care and research was taken by the team to understand and represent the complexities of that specific condition.”