“You have to kill your neighbour to survive, it’s selfishness that keeps a man alive,” scream the poignant lyrics of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera Act 2 Finale. These words could be interpreted in a manner of ‘tongue in cheek’ satire, but I believe that never has a truer phrase been stated in any piece of theatre in our current climate.
The epic The Threepenny Opera has just competed it’s tour of the country as the ambitious co-production between Graeae Theatre Company, New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich, Birmingham Rep, Nottingham Playhouse and West Yorkshire Playhouse.
This piece was the ultimate pioneer for diversity with a 21 strong cast of disabled and non-disabled actors, as well as actor musicians of all races, shapes and sizes. If there was ever a true representation of society today, this would be it! But would this play have been in existence without the government’s Independent Living Fund (ILF)?
It was recently announced that the government are closing the ILF set up in 1988 in order to give disabled people more choice and control to live independent lives. This decision was made despite an initial landslide victory for disabled people back in November 2013, where it was agreed that; “the Minister for Disabled People had breached equality duties when making the decision in December 2012 to close the ILF.”
The ILF is a central government fund to which disabled people with high support needs can apply in order to manage their own personal support routine, as an example, by employing their own personal assistants. The fund has already been closed since 2010 to new applicants, meaning that many young disabled people, who could previously have applied, no longer have this option, diminishing their right to freedom and control. In essence, closing the fund is taking the Independent Living Movement back 30 years.
But rather than closing the fund, many feel that it should be broadened and expanded out to more disabled people. Currently over 18,000 people rely on the ILF, one of whom is actor John Kelly, who played the Narrator in The Threepenny Opera. With the help of the ILF, John is able to employ his own personal assistants to support him daily to live a regular life – work, rest and play and, of course, tour the country as an actor. With it he is able to pursue his career, which would otherwise be virtually impossible. Access to Work covers his support at work, but on tour there are other hours outside of work to be addressed.
Without the ILF it would prove very difficult for shows such as The Threepenny Opera to power along with the spirit that it did.
Peter Rowe, Co-Director of The Threepenny Opera and Artistic Director at the New Wolsey Theatre said: “Having just directed this major production with a cast combining disabled and non-disabled actor musicians, I have been made acutely aware of the importance of the ILF in the lives of some of our company members. John Kelly, for example, is in many ways the spirit of the piece and depends on the ILF to live, as its title suggests, a full and active independent life. Without it he would not have been able to play such a critical part in the production and the show would not have been the same without his unique personality and talent”.
This is a feeling that has been reciprocated by the reviews and social media feedback that the production has received and, in a time where integration and diversity is being more widely recognised, the closure of the ILF would surely only have a detrimental effect on this, certainly from a theatrical perspective.
In a production where we were encouraged to enhance our passions and actions as ‘activists’ putting on a play, the relevance of this piece currently could not have been more paramount. Making a statement about the ILF closure whilst simultaneously witnessing the effect this is having on a work colleague and friend, and what a detrimental effect this would have had on our show, should John not have been a part of it, is very poignant. Pete went on to say that: “The beauty of the company is that there is such a diverse mix of disabled and non-disabled actor musicians and singers combining and interchanging on an entirely equal footing. Removal of the ILF would have meant that John would not have been able to contribute in this way and we would all be deprived of a unique and extraordinary performer”.
John, as a self-employed artist and facilitator, is understandably extremely anxious with regards to his future. He rightly said that: “we shouldn’t be fighting for such basic things in 2014,” where having the control over when he eats, has a rest, gets dressed and uses the bathroom doesn’t become a regimented ritual having lived an independent lifestyle for 26 years.
John was fortunate enough, back when his independent living journey began, to have immense support from his social worker, who encouraged him to apply to the ILF and therefore was able to plan his life and career in a manner that any non-disabled person would. In a recent interview with The New Statesman John quipped; “the only time usually that a government/society takes away these kinds of freedoms are when we have broken the law and go to prison…and it isn’t me that has robbed a bank!”
In 2012, it was John Kelly that fronted the Reasons to be Cheerful cast’s rendition of Ian Dury & The Blockheads’ ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ at the London Paralympic Games. Here he was enthusiastically applauded by PM David Cameron, who critically praised him in the Evening Standard by saying that; “it was Spasticus Autisticus that made the Paralympic Opening Ceremony a certifiable hit.” The country at this point celebrated their pride in disabled people. But with the closure of the ILF, what will happen to that legacy?
The Threepenny Opera became an immediate vehicle of speech on the day that the closure was announced. Moments after the news had broken, the onstage activists who, as part of the show paint banners, were able to react with placards across the stage bearing ‘Save The ILF’ slogans.
Anarchic? Possibly. Relevant? Absolutely! A true representation of company camaraderie in a Brechtian environment! To quote the book; “when the real paupers come….they’ll be coming in their thousands!”, and it is probably safe to assume that those who have fought this far vow to continue in their thousands!
Jenny Sealey, Co-Director of The Threepenny Opera & Artistic Director of Graeae Theatre Company, who was the Co- Artistic Director for the London 2012 Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony, stated that; “the narrative of the ceremony was built on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article No 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The ILF made it possible to have disabled people in the show, sending a worldwide message of equality, inclusion and rights.
Although a huge amount of energy was expended to win the appeal in November, there has to be more in order to ensure that this decision does not extinguish the freedom of the thousands of people that it affects. In essence, the word needs to spread so that we can help the government change its mind and not make this choice a wrong one! In the profound words of JJ Peachum: “We all deserve prosperity and freedom and happiness is everybody’s right…but let’s be practical, it isn’t so”….but wouldn’t it be something if it was!
By Natasha Lewis