Generally, I think it would be fair to say we are an inclusive nation; the powers-that-be appear willing to implement new ways of improving access for all and there seems to be an overall openness amongst us Brits to celebrate the achievements of those who are less able than others. The London Paralympics played its part in educating Britain; however, Don’t Wake Me: The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong is a heart-wrenching and inspiring reminder that more can be done to facilitate those living with disability.
Rahila Gupta’s true story, written as a rhyming ballad, begins with a difficult childbirth. Shortly after, the young mother is bombarded with medical jargon by a white coat with as much soul as the clinical setting. Upon deciphering the terminology and translating the unsympathetic doctor speech into layman’s terms, she learns that her new born son, Nihal, has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy. As the boy grows up, his mother realises that her son’s promise and potential lies within the cage of his condition. Battling against patronising school boards, Nihal’s mother does what she can to offer him a normal life. Fighting against the ignorant masses who openly and bluntly discuss Nihal’s fate in his presence with no regards for his feelings, which they may have presumed non-existent, Gupta’s frustration becomes painfully evident but the overriding element in this piece is her love for her son.
Rahila Gupta’s story reflects the hardship she encounters when trying to convince those in authority – educators, medics, pen pushers – that a diagnosis of cerebral palsy does not automatically result in mental and cognitive defects. In fact, her son Nihal is a highly intelligent boy with a brilliant sense of humour and a flair for poetry. He has as much right to an education as anyone else. Gupta shatters society’s delusion surrounding the concept of intelligence in the face of severe disability.
This is one of the most powerful pieces of theatre I have ever seen. This emotional roller-coaster is beautifully written in verse and yet the strength of the poetry is not diluted by the inclusion of Gupta’s factual journey, meandering through the peaks and troughs of hope and disappointment. Despite digging into the depths of her heart and sharing such a personal and heart-wrenching journey, Gupta’s skill for poetic life writing stands out as exemplary. The rhythm and pace of the language creates a beautiful and stunning array of expression. The very essence of her story is human: it is so raw and unashamedly honest. Don’t Wake Me is such a moving experience; so incredibly sad yet also funny, witty and, despite everything, light-hearted and hopeful.
Jaye Griffiths is incredible. From the very opening sentence, you know you’re in safe hands. Not only does she play with the language and mood, and capture rapt attention with every line delivered, but she also wears her heart on her sleeve. She offers a bold and brave performance; one that is centred on complete dedication and commitment to the text. Griffiths handles the poetic language with ease and delivers the words and deeper meaning with sincere artistic and emotional integrity. It is an encapsulating performance: I could not take my eyes off her. She moves and shakes the barrier between stage and auditorium – her character’s world merges with ours on the periphery. We laugh with her, we cry with her…
Rahila Gupta shares light on an issue that many may unknowingly ignore or push aside. I am thankful to this brave writer for opening my mind and teaching me about the deeper layers of living with disability. I haven’t stopped thinking about this play and I’m sure my fellow theatregoers, those who joined together in a standing ovation at the close of the show, will be talking about this for a very long time.
Runs until 22nd June then 5-25 August at Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh Fringe Festival