Arts: Will a blind man really play Oedipus better?

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The Independent Culture
Earlier this week the Independent reported on a new version of the Oedipus story. The production wasn't newsworthy because of some modern affront to a classic legend (Oedipus as child-abuse victim, say, or Cameron Mackintosh's Oedipus!, complete with uplifting show-stoppers such as "You Don't Need Eyes To See How Much I Love You"). It was in the news pages because of the casting. "For what is thought to be the first time," the piece read, "an actor with a natural aptitude for the part is playing him." This sounded rather alarming at first. Had the unfortunate man been pinned to a mountainside by his feet shortly after birth? Had he bedded down with his mother to prepare for the role? Nothing quite so extravagant, as it happens; it turns out that John Wilson Goddard is blind and has commissioned a writer, Jonathan Neale, to write Oedipus Needs Help (a title, I have to say, which suggests that the production might be newsworthy in the first respect, too).

For Mr Neale this was also an issue of equity - a chance to raise the question of the casting of disabled actors. He pointed out two recent cases of able-bodied actors playing disabled characters - Al Pacino as a blind man in Scent of a Woman and Daniel Day-Lewis's depiction of the writer Christy Brown in My Left Foot. "I think it was a mistake not giving these roles to disabled actors," Neale was reported as saying. The motives seem mixed here, partly artistic (disabled actors are naturally "gifted" for such roles, so begin their work closer to the truth), partly ethical (disabled actors don't get a fair break for most roles so they should at least get parts for which they aren't obviously disqualified). But the closer you look at the matter the more tangled the issues become.

To begin with, one obvious truism needs asserting - acting is acting, an illusion of authenticity. Even if the end result is naturalistic, it has little to do with nature. Indeed, great actors often have a kind of vacancy at the heart of their lives, a sense that they are only fully there in performance. They aren't qualified for so many roles by the possession of distinctive qualities but by their absence.

In any case, to use one's biological condition as a qualification for employment may be a dangerous strategy, a fast route to the sort of type- casting that sidelines disabled actors into disabled roles alone. (It may also allow for some unwanted quibbles - is a blind man really more suited to a role in which the character blinds himself? Not on the grounds of natural aptitude, I would have thought, if only because, in physical terms at least, a sighted actor can simulate blindness more persuasively than a blind man can simulate sight.)

The better route, raised this week on Radio 4's disability programme Does He Take Sugar?, would surely be to campaign for parts in which disability is merely a minor detail of characterisation. Here, too, there are limits. Art doesn't exist to tell lies, however much we might want the lie to be true. One is reminded of the sketch in which Peter Cook's diplomatic impresario tries to disabuse a one-legged actor who has hopped into his office to audition for the role of Tarzan. "Your right leg's fine," he says encouragingly. "I've got nothing against your right leg. The trouble is, neither have you." The ambition was a surreal comic fantasy when Cook dreamt it up, but activism has brought it within hailing distance of reality. Clearly, though, there remain many roles for which disability will continue to be a disqualification - a blind air-traffic controller or a wheelchair-bound chorus girl will do little more for the rights of disabled people than they do for the artistic integrity of the fictions in which they appear. A blind detective, on the other hand, or a wheelchair-bound detective, may offer both artistic and social payoffs, provided that the disability is a detail. Mr Goddard might have served his cause better had he commissioned a play about an accountant or a schoolteacher or a shopkeeper; anything, in short, but literature's most famous blind man.