On ‘Flesh Fly’ by Graeae

Dominating the image is Nabil Shaban as the title character, an uncompromising performer in an uncompromising role. Graeae is a disability-led theatre company, set up in 1980 and still creating challenging work today.

Most people in Jonson’s play are portrayed as bestial caricatures – Volpone, for example, means ‘sly fox’. Each caricature represents the stereotype of an individual’s internal morality and desires. But unlike some Shakespearean characters and other cultural representations of disabled people as the villain or the ‘other’, the physicalisation of personality and morality in ‘Volpone’ does not eclipse Jonson’s expectation that the audience should examine the characters from a more honest perspective. The characters’ morality (or lack of) provides some of the play’s finest black comedy, while simultaneously challenging audiences to accept that they have the potential to behave in the similar ways.

This Graeae production dates one year after the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). The passing of the DDA is a key moment in the NDACA chronology, as it was the first time disabled people’s rights were enshrined in law. The political campaign that led to its passing was incredibly influential on much of the artwork that NDACA holds. However, both versions of ‘Volpone’ illustrate that many of the concerns of the Disability Arts Movement are not tethered to a single historical era. Jonson and Graeae, writing centuries apart, have embraced and celebrated the variation, diversity and contradictions of human experience and perspective.

‘Flesh fly’ also stands as a moment in my own experience of the world of Disability Arts; Jonson is one of my favourite playwrights and I was lucky enough to see this production. It also serves as a reminder of all the occasions that the Disability Arts Movement passed through the cultural membrane into my mainstream world. Ironically, this started with Nabil’s appearance as Sil in Dr Who in the 1970s, but has continued through my personal and professional life through the work of personalities like Mat Fraser, Mik Scarlett, David Hevey, Liz Carr, Graeae and Jenny Sealey. Disability arts can represent many things, but it has existed, exists and will exist as part of a wider artistic canon, something that NDACA documents and celebrates.