It was with a huge variety of emotions, on many different levels, that I watched this piece of 1 hour 20 minutes: On the one hand there was an education about an illness I had never heard of – Williams Syndrome – on another level was the actor on the stage before me who is afflicted with the illness, and on another was the actress, author and director whose brother inspired the show. But it truly did make me question the very nature of what it means to be “handicapped.” And in this way, the play is a challenging and worthwhile venture for the spectator. I left the theater – a 250-seat auditorium in the 3d arrondissement – feeling happily enlightened and uplifted about a part of our world that I knew so little about, and now will never see the same way again.
The play comes in the form of a sort of story-telling acted out by the three main characters, Coutarel, Auriane Vivien and Denis Taffanel. The latter is a dancer and choreographer, who plays the role of John Cyprian Phipps Williams, who was born 16 November 1922, a New Zealand cardiologist who discovered the syndrome in 1961, while he was still quite young. As part of the story, we learn also of the strange, eccentric life of this mysterious, multi-talented doctor who apparently disappeared for years and was presumed dead – until he made contact with the author of a book about the poet Janet Frame, asking that a relationship he had with the poet please not be mentioned in the book!
But the most intriguing performance of the story is that of Auriane Vivien, who is affected by the syndrome. And it is here where I was the most touched by my questions about what constitutes a handicap. Vivien, who has played the role several times over the last year elsewhere in France, was – as the psychiatrist noted – perfectly at home on the stage. In fact, had it not been for some of her physical characteristics matching those of the typical case of Williams Syndrome, it might have been impossible to know whether or not she was truly affected by this disease.
This was a theater of personal exploration, especially for Vivien and Coutarel, as the author wrote the piece in order to try to come to terms with her own brother’s illness. Williams Syndrome affects about 1 in 10,000 people, and is characterized by certain physical attributes – notably the shape of the face and head – but also often by problems with visual spatial tasks, and, unfortunately, frequent heart problems. People with this genetic syndrome often have some moderate intellectual deficiencies as well, but other things are above average, for instance, they often possess a high musicality, often having absolute pitch. It is often marked also by an outgoing, friendly personality; which is something that is really touching in the circumstances as well.
The play takes a form somewhere between a recounting of personal history, self-questioning, demonstrations of what it is to have the syndrome, and even occasionally feels like a university lecture on the topic. But it was highly choreographed, and much of the physical interest comes from the contortions and movements of Taffanel, whose physical traits might actually lend themselves to questioning by anyone who did not know it, as to whether or not he himself suffered from the syndrome! Ultimately, the play’s main interest for me was, in fact, this questioning that it made me do about what exactly is that thing that we like to call “normal.”
* Not Reviews: This is a format I use on this blog to write about the music I am listening to, the books I am reading, the shows or films or other things that I do that are often in the habit of being written about by critics – book critics, music critics, theater critics, cinema critics, etc. And my feeling has always been that I believe in Ernest Hemingway’s dictum about book critics and how fiction writers themselves should not be writing criticism of other writers, in the spirit of the phrase: “You can’t hunt with the hare and hunt with the hounds.” My idea is just to talk about the books, plays, films and music I listen to or see. Talk about the way it affected me, everything and anything it inspires, but not to place myself on any kind of judgmental pedestal as critics are supposed to do – or are at least notorious for doing.