Touring – reviewed at Battersea Arts Centre
Guest reviewer: Romy Foster
Framed by the lens of the intrusive and boundary-breaking rise of artificial intelligence, The Shadow Whose Prey Becomes the Hunter by Back to Back Theatre serves as a wake-up call on how non-disabled people alienate people who have what are referred to in Australia as ‘intellectual disabilities’. (Australia and the UK have very different language for disability. In Australia ‘people with intellectual disabilities’ is considered polite. This is the language used in the show.)
In a town hall, ensemble members Sarah, Simon and Scott, all people with intellectual disabilities, are hosting a meeting to discuss the abuse that those with intellectual disabilities face. Collectively and individually, they raise valid points, ranging from what they are comfortable being referred to and to what their ‘limitations’ are. The surtitles, which act as a character who is deliberately patronising, call them limitations.
Whilst Scott is proud to be called ‘disabled’, Sarah prefers ‘neuro-diverse’ as she doesn’t feel that ‘disabled’ describes her accurately. This opens up an important discussion between the ensemble and audience. Each person with an intellectual disability is unique and we as a society cannot continue to use an umbrella term as a one-size-fits-all description. They have their own diagnoses, their own experiences, and thoughts and feelings that deserve to be heard and valued.
The cast is committed to speaking up for those who can’t in an attempt to change the world, though this sometimes can causes difficulties between them. There is conflict when Sarah cannot remember her speech for the meeting and other members suggest they steal her spotlight and say what they want instead, without asking her or attempting to understand why this breakdown in communication has occurred. This is frustrating and often happens under the guise of ‘allyship’. People with intellectual disabilities are perfectly capable of communicating. The ensemble finds it condescending when the AI surtitles translate for them as they ‘aren’t speaking a different language’, although Scott does joke that it can be difficult sometimes because he is ‘autistic and has a thick Australian accent’.
It is asked what this meeting is being held for and what the message is. Simon states it is to change the world and to teach others ‘not to abuse people and speak up for those who can’t’. Sometimes he gets passionate about these ideas and leaves the other two people out of decisions and important conversations, though. He describes himself as the mayor of the town and Sarah a secretary which displeases Scott and Sarah, but they eventually come to an understanding that they must work together to make change with their disability activism. Scott describes them as ‘architects building a new world’.
Themes around shame and guilt are introduced with the ensemble admitting they sometimes feel guilty about having an intellectual disability, but the shame should really be on the world that non-disabled people have built to exclude them and make them feel inferior. They suggest that when AI gains even more popularity, non-disabled people will, for the first time in their lives, feel ‘less than’ and experience the shame and guilt that people with intellectual disabilities have felt for centuries.
Sadly, exploitation of disabled people is not a new issue. The cast go into detail of the Hasbro exploitation where hundreds of disabled and ‘fallen’ women in Ireland were forced into slavery to make toys for the game giants in the 80’s and 90s. The information is difficult to find online unless you know what to search for. This is yet another example of silencing disabled voices.
Though sometimes a difficult watch, this is an extremely important story. It is also laced with
moments of humour and sensitivity throughout. Back to Back are a renowned international theatre
company who create ‘new forms of contemporary performance imagined from the minds and
experiences of a unique ensemble of actors with a disability – giving voice to social and political
issues that speak to everyone’. They prove performances like this are still necessary, iand that as a
society, there is still a lot of progress needing to be made.
The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes runs through 22 October, then tours.
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