23 February 2016
Since premiering at 2015’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, The Solid Life of Sugar Water has picked up rave reviews from national and festival press. Elinor Rowlands caught up with Amit Sharma, the show’s director, ahead of a three week run at the National Theatre in London from 26 February to 19 March 2016.
Sharma’s previous works, Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man, which toured nationally and internationally, and Prometheus Awakes that he co-directed were both large scale outdoor spectacles for Graeae.
Though The Solid Life of Sugar Water is set indoors within a more traditional theatre space, the set design of this piece, an empty bed behind the actors, is such a striking image, it really pulls the audience in.
“We originally had a design that was a bit more abstract and then we had the actors do a play reading of the script. Following that, the first thing the designer Lily Arnold said to me was, ‘We need a bed.’”
But the timing was wrong and Sharma even laughed it off because they only had three weeks before rehearsals were due to start and their previous design was already being built by the production’s co-producers, Theatre Royal Plymouth. When Arnold had said ‘we need a bed’ so late in the day, Sharma thought, “she’s got to be joking.” They spoke about it and then the idea of the set giving the impression that the audience looks down on the couple in bed came through and “the more it made sense to us.”
They had to work extremely fast and convince everyone that this was the finalised idea but it was worth it in the end because no one has looked back since. Sharma acknowledges that it is a huge accomplishment by the company to be given the platform at the National and he explains that “this production is a representation of what Graeae has been doing for the past thirty five years and so I feel very, very proud.”
He talks excitedly about the show: “It’s not really the type of work the National is renowned for in the past so there is a joy in the risk-taking aspect as well.” He is quick to add how important it has been for the rest of those involved, like the actors and the production team. “I feel it’s fantastic that the opportunity has come about and for us to be there.”
Showing at the National presents an opportunity for an audience who knows Graeae’s work well; to one who has always wanted to see their work but has not had the opportunity, and to an audience who has never seen nor knows about their work. Despite the Paralympics and the Unlimited Festival at Southbank Centre, it’s been almost five years since a Graeae production was in London. It’s long overdue. “It feels like a very exciting moment for everyone involved,” Sharma enthuses.
For audiences unfamiliar with their work, Graeae is a theatre company that aims to break down barriers by challenging preconceptions and places Deaf and disabled artists centre stage in their productions. Sharma highlights that Sugar Water is not a disability play.
“This story is about two people who are trying to have sex after a stillbirth and the two of them happen to be disabled. It’s a subject that is hardly represented in any shape or form in the media or where ever.”
Although it’s not necessarily a taboo, Sharma explains that it is “something that loads of people experience but no one ever talks about, for obvious reasons. Then there’s two people who are disabled within that mix, so sex and disability feature”. But the play is about people, not disability, and for Sharma, this is something Graeae has “always strived for.”
It is obvious that Sharma lives and breathes for the company as he continually refers to his work as theirs. He is disarmingly modest about his achievements, crediting Graeae directors who have come before him. “I can’t really claim anything because I had the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of giants, well, stand with crutches.”
The element of excitement, however, at being programmed at the National is clearly brimming as he references the work of Rufus Norris who is directing The Threepenny Opera at the National. It has Jamie Beddard, a huge Disability Arts activist in it, “it’s really amazing and brilliant,” says Sharma.
Genevieve Barr who plays Alice and Arthur Hughes who plays Phil are both working with Graeae for the first time.
“Both of them to varying degrees are thinking about their impairment, their disability but more than anything, they are thinking about themselves as actors and I think that’s the beauty of the next generation. Here are two actors who want to do the work because they want to be an actor, they want to be on TV, they want to make films”
This is the strength of Graeae – it gives actors the opportunity to really believe they can achieve such ambitions. Sharma refers to another disabled performer who Graeae worked with when he directed Prometheus who went on to set up an aerial circus company after thinking that she would never be able to do any aerial stuff. “She’s got her own space and everything. She was just determined.” He smiles.
It is this solidarity that is generated through Sharma’s enthusiasm and pride as he details the ways in which Graeae has changed or at least added to the lives of the people who have worked with them. “I don’t think it’s unique to Graeae, I think it’s unique to Companies that try to provide a platform for whatever their cause is.”
The cause for the National, for example, is art, yet for Graeae it is “art with disabled people.” Of course, for Graeae it is also about telling untraditional stories, so when Jack wrote the part of Alice, he didn’t write her deaf. Initially, the part was not going to be played by a deaf actress so when Genevieve, who is deaf, was cast, Graeae made those adjustments. “But we didn’t go, let’s make it all about being deaf, we just said, let’s do something where people can resonate with it whether they have this experience or not.” This for Sharma, is the key thing about the company’s goals.
Sharma is under no illusion that playing at the National will change everything, but he does recognise that it presents an opportunity to show audiences a different way of working.
“We have to wear that badge, we have to explain it because if we don’t, then people who don’t understand disability politics are not going to engage, are not going to think about why disabled people are banging on about the ILF. But if they see a production, whether it’s ours or another disability production, and they connect with it and enjoy it then when they see something that’s a bit more political about disability on the news then they’ll go ‘actually that’s wrong’ because hopefully they’ll make the connection that if that funding is cut or taken away then ‘I won’t have had the experience that I’d have had in that theatre.’”
Something that has delighted Sharma is that the reviews of the show have focussed on the art and not been hung up on the disability, as can often be the case. He says:
“It’s the art which is what’s leading and we’ve always felt that, we’re always led by that, it just happens now that we’re in a position where we can go to the National Theatre and now showcase our talent”.
He acknowledges that it has taken a long time for people to catch on, but what better way to get there, than to watch this show in a theatre that strives for art excellence.