Friday, February 25, 2011

At National Theatre of Scotland, new production "Girl X" tackles ethics of Ashley X disability case

Kirstin Innes of The List talks to Robert Softley, one half of the team behind the National Theatre of Scotland’s hard-hitting new play "Girl X":

About four years ago, performer and disability rights activist Robert Softley came to the National Theatre of Scotland with an unusual proposition. He’d been following the case of Ashley X, a pre-pubescent disabled girl in the US whose parents filed an injunction to halt her puberty, removing her womb and breasts and effectively preserving her in a child-like state. Softley had also been participating in intense online debates surrounding the case, and knew he wanted to develop the ideas somehow. However, he had concerns.

‘It’s funny, because I actually thought it would make a very, very bad play,’ he says. ‘It’s such an emotive subject: it could easily become weepy and overblown as a piece of theatre. So I went to the National Theatre of Scotland and said, look, I’ve got this idea, but I’m really worried that it could go horribly wrong. And that’s why I’m thankful that they teamed me up with Pol.’

Pol is of course Belgian director Pol Heyvaert, best known to Scottish audiences as the man behind 2007’s brutal, unflinching Aalst, in which the testimonies of a couple accused of murdering their children were put forth for public scrutiny. Softley and Heyvaert have been involved in an NTS-supported collaboration almost since that production finished. The resulting piece, Girl X, an innovative, confrontational and entirely un-weepy interaction with those issues, begins a Scottish tour this month.

‘Aalst was also about a potentially emotive subject, and I really responded to the way Pol veered right away from anything hysterical,’ says Softley. ‘He pared it right back to debate, deliberately didn’t go for the big sob story. With Girl X, we’ve gone some very interesting places. My original idea was to focus tightly on the issues, but Pol was interested in the whole idea of political correctness and how that can stifle debate. He’s not scared to do things that I don’t know we’d ever think of in the UK. He questions more.’

In its final form, Girl X will feature Softley onstage with a ‘choir’ of 16 other perfomers representing society and society’s views. However, audience members expecting to sit back and relax should probably prepare themselves.

‘The choir and the audience basically become one: the audience will be very involved in the discussion,’ Softley says. ‘On the surface, we’ve made a play about a young disabled girl, but really, this is about society.’ The sort of society which, very recently, ruled that a 41 year old disabled man known only as ‘Alan’ should be banned from having gay sex? ‘Yes. Ashley X was a catalyst, but I hope we’ve made something that could apply to Alan’s case; to any number of cases. That ruling was made because he didn’t ‘properly understand the consequences’ -- well, that could apply to about 80% of everyone’s actions at any given time, couldn’t it? There’s this expectation that, when it comes to disabled people, they have to be protected. From themselves. And I hope Girl X is asking these questions. It’s actually about looking at what we as a western society have become, and asking ourselves - are we alright with that?’