Friday, February 25, 2011

Learning disabled performers bring Tudor court jesters to life in British production of All the King's Fools

From The Guardian in the UK:

There are several things one might expect of a visit to Hampton Court. Disabled actors farting for your entertainment is not one of them. That's just one of the ways in which All the King's Fools will up-end expectations when it appears at Henry VIII's palace on the Thames this week. A combination of theatre, heritage site re-enactment and living research, the performances – by Bristol companies Foolscap and Misfits Theatre – draw on recent studies that suggest history's court jesters often had learning disabilities. In All the King's Fools, a cast of learning-disabled performers will bring that theory to life.

The show promises to be a far cry from the lute-playing and falconry that often pass for heritage entertainment. Several dearly maintained social conventions are up for grabs, including the one that tells us not to laugh at disabled people, and the one that assures us we're more civilised than, say, the Tudors. "We're convinced we're more progressive now in dealing with disability," says Suzannah Lipscomb, a historian working on the production. "But that's not always the case."

Lipscomb, based at the University of East Anglia, is a former research curator at Hampton Court. Commissioned by Foolscap director and former European Jester of the Year Peet Cooper, she delved into the history of Tudor-era disability, and discovered "a big debate about the disability status of fools". In the terminology of the time, fools were "natural" or "artificial" – ie, learning disabled, or just pretending. Lipscomb emerged convinced that Will Somer, Henry VIII's fool (and the supposed template for King Lear's), was a "natural".

Not all historians agree; many assume that the wordplay and truth-telling to power for which jesters were famed is beyond the capacity of the learning disabled. "But that shows their ignorance," says Lipscomb. "From my experience with the actors, witty wordplay is characteristic." She now hopes to prove – or disprove – the point with All the King's Fools.

Cooper has no doubt of his actors' verbal dexterity. So I ask him: in the name of accuracy, shouldn't the RSC cast a learning-disabled actor as Touchstone, say, or Lear's Fool? "I know a few actors who could do it," he says. Perhaps he means Paul Prangley, a young Welshman with a flair for slapstick and breakdancing. Or Penny Lepisz, a Misfits veteran with an encyclopedic knowledge of Tudor history. She tells me about the Tudor fashion for "tag rhyming", a bawdy proto rap music at which Somer excelled. "Oh fair maid, oh buxom one – she is a bonny lass," runs one verse she improvised for the show. "But falling from a leafy branch, she bared her rotund ass." ("It's saucy," she says. "But then it was saucy in Henry VIII's time.")

In All the King's Fools, Henry is made a gift of an outspoken fool. The learning disabled were held to have "access to a divine wisdom", says Lipscomb, and to keep a fool absolved one's sins. That may be patronising – but 21st-century attitudes are problematic, too. In Tudor times, when few people had any learning, "learning disabled" was a meaningless category. The disabled, says Lipscomb, "were much more part of the fabric of society".

This week, they will be part of the fabric of Hampton Court. The shows will include verses, perhaps some breakdancing and definitely a "dance of the farts", says Cooper. He hopes All the King's Fools will excavate a tradition long hidden from history. "Comedy owes a debt to disabled performers," he says. Look at the style of Norman Wisdom, or Lee Evans. "It's never acknowledged," says Cooper, "but learning disability is deep in comedy's DNA."

If, today, we find it uncomfortable laughing at disabled jesters, says Lipscomb, "it says something about our political correctness. But it also says something about our lack of exposure to people with different abilities." Like all good jesters, the All the King's Fools company pass off as ribald entertainment some truths society may find hard to take. As the actors put on their ruffs in the palace where Will Somer once jigged, Lipscomb hopes they will "transport us to the past and make us think about whether we are more progressive these days, or not."