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Garry Robson, Birds of Paradise and The Tin Soldier

Garry Robson was in Russia when the idea for a production of Hans Christian Andersen's The Tin Soldier first took root. The actor and artistic director of leading disabled theatre company Birds of Paradise was in St Petersburg to do some work with young people, and was taken into an orphanage.

“Disabled kids in Russia by and large aren't brought up in the community,” says Robson, “and tend to stay in orphanages which are housed in old gulags called internats, where the kids stay for life. I was asked to do a workshop in one which was liberal arts based. I did the workshop, and while I was there I realised that most of the kids were never going to leave here. That's the fate of most disabled kids in these places, and who, left ton their own devices, form family groupings with each other, and develop a rich imagination. That struck me as something very powerful, and I wanted to do something with it in a way that would be right for Birds of Paradise.”

The result of this is Mike Kenny's new adaptation of The Tin Soldier, which, produced in association with the King's and Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, will be the company's first ever show for children. Kenny's version uses the idea of the orphanage as a framing device to tell Andersen's story about the one-legged soldier's love for a paper ballerina before both are thrown into the fire.

“We've called it The Place,” says Robson, “and it's where the kids go to be on their own, so they can tell stories, which this group love to do. It's a play for five to nine year olds, so we don't labour the orphanage thing, but I think it's important that it's there. When Birds of Paradise make work like The Tin Soldier, we hope it will help change people's minds about what they might think about difference and disability, and I think it's important to see people onstage who are disabled, but who also have a sense of agency.”

Given the background to the play, the resonances of the story of The Tin Soldier are plain to see in . For Robson, there is also a more personal root.

”The Tin Soldier was a very important story for me when I was growing up,” he says. “ Disabled people, like everybody else, need to find someone to aspire to and identify with. For me it was Ian Dury, but because disabled people don't see a lot of role models on TV or anywhere else, when you do see them, they really stand out. The fact that The Tin Soldier only had one leg, because there wasn't enough metal leftover, and the fact that he falls in love with this paper ballerina because he sees her standing on one leg is quite significant if you see that when you're growing up.”

Robson also recalls the iconic 1960s TV western series, Gunsmoke. While most characters were square-jawed all American cowboys led by Dodge City law-man Marshall Matt Dillon, for Robson, it was someone else who stood out.

“There was a character called Chester,” he says of one of Dillon's sidekicks played by Dennis Weaver, “and he had a limp. That again really stood out, because it was so rare to see someone on TV like that with whom I could identify.

“As far as The Tin Soldier goes, there was always something about Hans Christian Andersen's work that grabbed me more than that by the Brothers Grimm,” Robson says of the author of such stories as The Little Match Girl. Thumbelina and The Little Mermaid. “I think Hans Christian Andersen created very special worlds, and stories which are quite often about characters being different in some way. I think as well that, where the Brothers Grimms' stories have been bastardised, there's something that's stayed very pure about Andersen's work, and that there's something very different about it. The soldier may have only had one leg, but he was steadfast and true.”

To bring the story to life, Robson and Birds of Paradise have enlisted Russian designer Victor Nikonenko to create a series of puppets to work alongside actors Robert Softley Gale and Caroline Parker. There will also be a live soundtrack composed and played by Lauren Gilmour of folk duo Bella and the Bear, Stuart Ramage and co-founder of experimental hip hop band Hector Bizerk, Audrey Tait.

Beyond The Tin Soldier, 2018 looks set to be a big year for Birds of Paradise, when the company will celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary. While this will include various activities, including possible revivals of popular shows, the year's flagship Birds of Paradise production will be a new musical adaptation of My Left Foot. This co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland will revisit the story of Christy Brown, an Irish-man born with cerebral palsy, who, despite only having full physical control over his left foot, became a successful writer and artist.

Jim Sheridan's 1989 film of Brown's autobiographical book caused controversy among the disabled community when Daniel Day-Lewis was cast as Brown.

“Cripping up was the phrase that came out of that,” says Robson. “Again, there's a personal significance for Robert and me. When I was growing up, it was all about Douglas Bader,” he says, referring to the RAF fighter pilot who lost both his legs, but who went on to become a key player in the Battle of Britain before being immortalised on-screen in Reach For the Sky by Kenneth More.

“I remember getting heartily sick of Bader being used as an example of what you could achieve. When My Left Foot came out, it was the same for Rob.”

Robson also points to a play called Creeps, written by Canadian writer David Freeman, and first performed in Toronto in 1971.

“Freeman had cerebral palsy,” says Robson, “and all the characters in the play were disabled, but because there were no disabled actors around, he got able-bodied actors to do it, and gave them some very serious stage directions about how to act CP.”

Creeps was revived this year in Vancouver by the Realwheels company, who featured three disabled actors in the cast.

“The debate over who should be playing disabled characters on stage and screen is something that still rumbles on,” says Robson. “It's far from cut and dry, but it's pretty obvious that if the part of a disabled character is in the frame, then disabled actors should at least be seen for it.”

Beyond 2018, Birds of Paradise are looking at the possibility of reviving Martin McDonagh's 1996 play, The Cripple of Inishmaan, which in 2013 starred Daniel Radcliffe as a character called Cripple Billy. Again, Birds of Paradise's approach will go some way to reclaiming the play.

“We'll do it with a real cripple,” says Robson.

For all The Tin Soldier takes similar sensibilities on board, Robson and Birds of Paradise are aware of the seasonal context the show is being seen in.”

“It's lots of fun,” says Robson. “There's laughter, and there's some beautiful moments, and a lot of magic too. But it's got a heart as well. It's not an easy story, because it doesn't end well. But the kids can deal with that, because they get that winter is coming, but they know it doesn't last forever.”

The Tin Soldier, The Studio, Edinburgh, December 7-23.
www.edtheatres.com
www.boptheatre.co.uk

The Herald, December 5th 2017

ends

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