This review responds to Alex Oates’ play All in a Row, which I saw on 15th February 2019 and has been heavily criticized by the autistic community. If you’re not familiar with these concerns, I’d recommend reading some of them before reading this, it's available at 123helpme.org. Many have been collected on the website www.allinarowisableist.com, and #puppetgate has been used on Twitter throughout. Due to the nature of the review, there will be spoilers for the production, including a couple of plot twists.
Content Warning: I will be arguing that the production has several ableist elements, and will try to contextualize this within a broader cultural context, so this may be upsetting for some people – particularly neurodivergent people. I apologise in advance, as it really is not my intention to cause more hurt to the autistic community, but this reflects my experience of the play as deeply upsetting.
Community Engagement and Accessibility
A key phrase in the disability rights movement and autistic self-advocacy is “nothing about us without us”, and in my view this has two implications for performance.
- There should be meaningful consultation with the represented community before and during the creative process.
- The work should venture to be accessible to that community.
Regarding the first point, I don’t have a great deal to add to what has already been said – it seems that the company was advised by the National Autistic Society against aspects of the production and decided to go ahead with them anyway. (Dex 2019) After seeing it, I’m really not surprised that the NAS had concerns. The producer stated that “Alex started working on the show over five years ago and immediately consulted with a number of autistic friends and family, as well as the parents of some autistic children who he had previously worked with as a carer.” (Virides 2019) Whilst this is commendable, it’s worth noting that friends and family are not impartial, and there are reasons why they might say they agree even if they don’t. Part of my job as a theatre lecturer is to write about theatre and assess student work, but I will still admit that I’ve pretended to like friends’ shows in a non-professional context out of politeness and/or because of my own social anxiety. This is why consultation with external professional organisations such as the NAS is so valuable – they’re much more likely to be candid with their response.
Regarding the second point, accessibility, my feeling as someone who struggles with crowds and loud noises is that this production was not designed with neurodivergent people in mind. In fact, leaving aside the content of the play for a moment, I couldn’t in good conscience recommend this play to autistic people because of the sensory environment alone. They are planning a relaxed performance on 23rdFebruary, but having one accessible performance within the 3 week run of a show about autism feels unsatisfactory. There are a few simple things that they could do to improve the accessibility of every show.
- Provide ear defenders at the Box Office. This is something that I’ve seen done at other events and we have some at the University of Kent that I’d be happy to lend to Southwark Playhouse.
- Have a chill-out space near the entrance to the auditorium. The bar and foyer were really noisy and busy, so I suspect many autistic people would be feeling pretty over-stimulated before the show even starts.
- Publish a visual story on the website. I assume that they’re making it for the relaxed performance, so they could easily make it available as a free download for anyone to read before any show. (I’d recommend highlighting the sound design and lighting as two aspects that might be challenging for some people).
- Publish detailed trigger warnings about content, as I suspect many neurodivergent people will find it very difficult to watch. I’ll discuss this in more detail below, but there are large chunks of the dialogue where characters discuss whether they want ‘a child like this’. The idea that one’s own parents/caregivers might have had conversations – or even thoughts – like that will be deeply upsetting for some people.
A more difficult issue is that because of the design of the set and auditorium – with the audience on three sides and the entrance/exit on one corner – the only way I could realistically have stepped out was to walk across the set. This meant that there were a couple of points at which I would have liked to step out for a moment, but didn’t feel able to. I’d urge the company and front of house to look into possible ways of redressing this – if not for every show then at very least for the relaxed performance.
I know many autistic people do not want to see the show, for reasons I completely understand, but if the company is serious about engaging the autistic community in dialogue then they have an ethical obligation to make that dialogue accessible. At present, from an accessibility perspective, it is not so this work feels like a show about autism for a presumptively neurotypical audience.
A central concern around this play has been the use of puppet to represent the autistic child, Laurence, when the other characters are played by human beings. (see Boue 2019, Forshaw 2019, and Nellis 2019) At a fundamental level, critics argue, that decision is dehumanizing the autistic person. In a discussion with the BBC, Alex Oates responded to this criticism by saying “people are making the point that we’re dehumanizing him…and, you know, in a way we are. But that wasn’t the primary reason we chose the puppet.” (BBC 2019) So, even the writer concedes that there’s a sense in which the character is dehumanised by being represented by an object but suggests that there were practical and aesthetic arguments for doing so anyway. The practical argument hinges on the idea that neurodivergent actors couldn’t play this character. I think they could and that the company are underestimating neurodivergent performers with that assumption, but I suspect that nothing I could say at this point would change the creative team’s mind on that. So instead I’ll focus on the aesthetic effect.
A strand of some responses to the play on Twitter has been that the people criticising the decision don’t understand or appreciate the artform of puppetry, so let me outline my general position. I love puppetry as an art – I’ve performed in a puppet theatre company and guest edited two issues of the magazine the Puppet Notebook. Three weeks ago I saw Anywhere by Theatre de l’Entrouvert and still haven’t found the words to express how moving and affective that production was, and some of my strongest emotional experiences in theatre have involved puppets. However, purely on a technical level All in a Row was not very good puppetry. The effect of the Laurence puppet was oddly distracting – when walking about he was a torso floating in front of the legs of a grown man, and when sat down it was like he was growing out of Hugh Purves’ groin. This puppet would have been much more convincing if he had his own legs, with a second puppeteer operating them, and both puppeteers in plain black clothing.
The puppet does seem less grey under the theatre lights than it seemed in the video and related images, but fundamentally the effect of using a puppet with a stationary expression is that is seems to lack any interiority – any sense of an inner life. Especially when contrasted with the expressiveness of the human actors (and, in fact, the puppeteer) who display a rich range of human emotions, regardless of what he is engaging with Laurence’s blank expression gives the impression that there’s ‘nobody there’. This denial of autistic subjectivity has a long and problematic history – as Ekins (2019) reminds us, the father of ABA Ole Ivar Lovaas said of autistic children in 1974: “You have a person in the physical sense — they have hair, a nose and a mouth — but they are not people in the psychological sense.” (Lovaas 1974) This notion that autistic people are not yet people ‘psychologically’ was used by Lovass to justify abusive practices that still exist in places like the Judge Rotenberg Centre today. (Pilkington 2018) It is part of what McGuire (2016) calls the ‘cultural logic’ underpinning a lot of violence against autistic people. This is context that Oates should have been aware of when writing this play – which focuses on the institutionalisation of an autistic child following a report to social services about unexplained bruises.
Moreover, this denial of autistic/learning-disabled subjectivity is a representational trope that, as Loftis (2015) argues, we can trace at least as far back as Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937). But now a growing number of autistic self-advocates from across the spectrum are challenging this and expressing their subjective experiences in rich and varied ways, so there’s no excuse to continue to perpetuate it. In my view, the authentic subjective experiences of autistic self-advocates are the main thing that we’ve not heard enough of on our stages and screens, but that’s hopefully starting to change.
In a statement supporting the play, the Artistic Director of Southwark Playhouse suggests that the story of “parents and carers of a severely disabled child…is an important story to tell and as valid as anyone elses.” (Smyrnios 2019) And I completely agree that the central storyline of parents whose child will be going into residential care because they are struggling is one that should be told. I just don’t think it should be done in the way that All in a Row does it – the convention of the puppet is problematic for the reasons outlined above, and the actual script draws on common ableist tropes and stereotypes without either critiquing or subverting them.
The character of Tamora, for example, seems evocative of the ‘refrigerator mother’, an early (debunked but previously very influential) theory for the cause of autism most famously articulated by Bruno Bettelheim. Almost everything we know about the character underlines her intense focus on her career (working for 10 years as a tech entrepreneur) and social services rate her 2/5 on ‘warmth’. The cast gets some strong laughs from the audience as Tamora rants about this fact – with her angry assertion that she’s very warm comically undercut by the fact that the men around her are terrified. But I couldn’t help wondering what precisely the writer is trying to say here, especially when it transpires that she was the one who phoned social services and started the wheels in motion for Laurence to be taken away.
At other points, Tamora wonders whether her son’s autism was caused by some kind of divine punishment because of things she did in the past, and she guiltily expresses that she’s a little excited about a future without him. And as Ellis (2019) observes, “by the end of the play the support worker has left and the two parents are either stoned or drunk, neither in a truly fit state to be responsible for a child as vulnerable as Laurence.”
Although the support worker, Gary, is probably the most sympathetic character – not least because he stays sober when looking after a disabled child – he articulated the most overtly ableist idea in the play. Specifically, he suggested that perhaps people with learning disabilities were animals that were ‘wrongly reincarnated’ into human bodies. Although the parents were quick to criticise this sentiment, I was again wondering what the writer was trying to say – especially in the context of a production that does not physically represent the autistic character in a humanised way. To be clear, Gary suggesting this did not contribute to the plot in any way, and its only dramaturgical function seems to be to get audience laughter when the parents respond with disgust.
At this point I am again reminded of Loftis’s discussion of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, where the learning-disabled character Lennie is portrayed as animal-like and abnormally strong. (Loftis 2015) Both are features of Laurence’s characterisation – two out of the three adult characters describe him as being like a dog, and a key recurring theme is that this 11 year old is too strong for the adults to manage physically. Just as Loftis argues about Lennie, these stereotypes simply function to further dehumanise the character – so Laurence is sometimes an object and sometimes an animal, but never a person.
The strangest aspect of characterization was the father, Martin, who it’s revealed has been shitting on Tamora’s pillow and blaming it on Laurence. The explanation for this was rather unclear, but it’s the closest one of the adult characters comes to imagining what it is like to be Laurence. After all, the blurb for the show asserts, “Laurence thinks it’s okay to wee on mummy’s pillow”. But rather than think through the reasons why Laurence might do this – considering the sensory profile of autism and how it might interact with the environment of a bathroom, as Memmott (2019) does – he construes it as spite. Or, at very least, when he does it it’s a way of venting frustrations with his wife and failing marriage.
In another scene, Martin asks whether Gary is worried that if he has a child it would be like Laurence, emphasising that there “aren’t any tests” to prevent it. As if to emphasise that the writer’s not endorsing this position, Gary insists he wouldn’t mind, but this sentiment rings a little hollow from a character that recently suggested Laurence was an animal stuck in a human body.
Towards the end of the play, Martin reassures Tamora that “you can love someone and wonder what it would be like if they were someone else.” At this point, were I not already on the verge of a meltdown, I would have liked to rise from my seat and shout the following quote from Jim Sinclair, a leading figure in the autism rights movement:
“Autism is a way of being. It is not possible to separate the person from the autism.
Therefore, when parents say, I wish my child did not have autism, what they’re really saying is, I wish the autistic child I have did not exist, and I had a different (non-autistic) child instead.
Read that again. This is what we hear when you mourn over our existence. This is what we hear when you pray for a cure. This is what we know, when you tell us of your fondest hopes and dreams for us: that your greatest wish is that one day we will cease to be, and strangers you can love will move in behind our faces.” (Sinclair 1993)
I am not suggesting that the playwright has to agree with this argument – it’s pretty clear from the play that he does not, and I know some autistic people don’t agree with Sinclair either. But the fact that autistic people have spoken about this question so eloquently, and that a neurotypical writer has taken it upon himself to discuss it without listening to or including those voices, is really indicative of the way in which I think this play is hurtful to the autistic community.
Coda: Other reviews published since this one
Since this was published, there has been some great reviews…