Robert Softley Gale was nine when My Left Foot came out. Jim Sheridan’s big screen adaptation of Christy Brown’s autobiographical account of how this working class boy born into 1950s Ireland with cerebral palsy learnt to write and paint with the only limb over which he had complete control, starred Daniel Day-Lewis as Brown. While Day-Lewis won an Oscar for his portrayal of Brown, as a non-disabled actor, this left a legacy of unrest among the disabled community.
“My Left Foot was such a seminal part of my upbringing,” says Softley Gale. “It was the first representation of disability in a film that I can remember seeing. But I’ve always had a difficult relationship with the film, because there’s something deeply problematic about that whole thing of him cripping up and pretending to have CP. What we remember about My Left Foot is Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s not Christy Brown, and that’s a fundamental issue for me. We never talk about Christy Brown. He’s by the by.”
Almost three decades on, as an artist who also has cerebral palsy, Softley Gale is tackling that question head-on in My Left / Right Foot, his new show for the Glasgow-based company he is artistic director of, Birds of Paradise, in co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland. Rather than make a polemic, Softly Gale has chosen to tackle things in the form of a musical comedy about an amateur dramatics company who attempt to put on their own version of My Left Foot.
“I guess I’ve always been a big fan of musicals,” he says. “I love what you can do with the musical form, and was involved in amateur theatre, so am very aware of that whole concept, and characters like those in the piece. So it felt like if anyone was going to put on My Left Foot, it would be an am-dram company, and that allows them to get it all wrong.”
With clear shades of Michael Frayn’s play, Noises Off and The Play that Goes Wrong, Softley Gale also points to Stepping Out, and the episode of Ricky Gervais’ TV comedy, Extras, that featured a cameo from disabled actress and some-time Edinburgh regular Francesca Martinez.
“For us the thing that goes wrong isn’t actors being killed or whatever. It’s about how the non-disabled people handle inclusiveness and diversity, and how they get that wrong. This stuff happens, but if we laugh about it we can maybe talk about it. There isn’t a rule book to diversity. It’s not that simple, so unless we can talk about it, we’re not going to move forward.”
More recent examples of what Softley Gale calls cripping up can be found in Inside I’m Dancing, the 2004 film Starring Steven Robertson as a man with cerebral palsy who is befriended by a non-disabled man played by James McAvoy. Softley Gale also cites Me Before You, in which charts the relationship between a young woman and a recently disabled man. Then there is The Theory of Everything the Stephen Hawking’s bio-pic which, in an echo of Day-Lewis, won Eddie Redmayne an Oscar.
“Stephen Hawking obviously had a progressive condition,” Softley Gale points out, “so when you get an actor to go from non-disabled to disabled there’s a question there, but they keep doing it over and over again, and they keep giving the same crap excuses of oh, we couldn’t find a disabled actor. There are far more disabled actors out there now, so that excuse doesn’t really hold water. For me, there was a real moment where I realised I had to make my own work, and put my own voice onstage rather than just being an actor.”
My Left / Right Foot comes six months after Birds of Paradise’s application to Creative Scotland for regular funding was rejected along with several other companies. This caused a furore, and, in a humiliating U-turn by Scotland’s arts funding body, the original decisions for Birds of Paradise and four other companies were reversed. Softley Gale remains philosophical about the experience.
“Obviously we’re happy to be back,” he says, “and I think the big thing about that difficult time was the outpouring of support from other companies for us and other companies affected. That was really overwhelming, so in some ways, I think we’ve come out of it stronger than we’ve ever been before.
“There are still questions about the whole process that remain. There are companies that are not back in who I think should be, and we need to ask questions about what happens to these companies. I guess my big fear is that in three years’ time we do it all again, and we can’t keep doing this. It’s not rocket science. I worked for the Scottish Arts Council for a couple of years, so I know at times it can be difficult, but you work out what you want to fund and then fund it.”
With support from the Made in Scotland programme as well as the NTS, My Left / Right Foot is doing okay in that sense. As for the show itself, “For me, it’s the conversations people have after it,” says Softley Gale. “I don’t know what the answer to all this stuff is, and I don’t think anyone else does, but let’s put new stories onstage that haven’t been put onstage before. Let’s make these stories about our culture, and then we can talk about them and work out how we feel about them.
“People might still come out of this and say that was fine, but Daniel Day-Lewis is a great actor. Maybe that trumps everything else. I don’t think it does, but that’s a conversation we need to have. We need to ask ourselves who do we value and how do we treat people. Those are questions that are really important.”
My Left / Right Foot – The Musical, Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh, August 1-27, 6.10-7.40pm.
The Herald, August 2nd 2018