When I first saw the posters of ‘Redefining Juliet’ at the Barbican theatre few weeks ago I was quite intrigued but had no idea what the production would entail. Then by complete coincidence the BBC contacted the Disability News Service where I work to write about a documentary of the same name, initially I thought ‘what a strange coincidence,’ but only as I started working on the story did I realise that the documentary was in actual fact about the same production that I saw the poster of. I became more excited about the story.
Interviewing Storme Toolis the star of the documentary and the creative producer behind it opened my eyes to a problem that I had long supressed or maybe just forgotten about it; the challenge of playing an iconic character as a disabled person. Toolis told me that the idea behind the production initially came from her own experience, she wanted to play Juliet when she was a teenage and “it occurred to me that Juliet is a character that not many would get the chance to play and it can’t be just me, there must be other people who don’t get this opportunity to play the role”. This brought back memories of my own childhood struggles.
For as long as I remember I wanted to act; in fact I remember being as young as 3 years old and creating my own plays using my dolls as actors alongside me. This passion grew with me and when I attended a special needs school I was able to nurture this hobby. I could not believe my luck when Graeae Theatre Company started doing a workshop at the school and we worked on producing a play. It was a dream come true but like most dreams you have to wake up to reality at one stage.
During my secondary school education I moved to a mainstream high school and I was adamant to continue my dream of acting and decided to take Drama GCSE, unaware that it is a path not many can complete. Like any enthusiastic and passionate child it did not bother me that there weren’t many disabled actors on TV, in films and theatre, because I firmly believed that it is all about talent, something that was confirmed by my work with Graeae – a naïve child I was.
Therefore I chose drama not realising that I would not get picked for a big role or even chosen by other students as often the teacher would split the class into different teams. In the beginning I thought, ‘oh it was a one off and next time they will ask me to join their team,’ but this never happened. The teacher noticed it after a few times so she changed things and began dividing the pupils into teams herself. I saw the look that the other students had when I was put in their group, it hurt me but I was determined to show them that I could act better than all of them. I picked up on the fact that the entire class wanted to play ‘the cool’ or ‘pretty’ character and no one wanted a comic role as I guess they thought it would damage an image that they want to portray. I had no such issue, and so one day I played the role of a greedy and spoilt child who could not stop eating. That was the turning point, suddenly I saw the entire class in a fit of laughter, clapping and asking me to carry on. I knew then that this was the point at which I won the war. From then on my classmates fought over me and tried persuading me to join their team, but I decided that I had proved my point and no longer wanted to be part of such world; and so I dropped Drama and took French instead.
The drama teacher who believed in me and in the talent that I had, kept trying to convince me to change my mind and even took me on theatre trips to show me what I would miss out but I had made up my mind. I wanted to compete in a field where my academic and natural ability were the focus and not appearance.
‘Redefining Juliet’ awoke that long forgotten ambition but I still did not feel that it actually gave a radical redefinition of a character I have never been a fan of. The production focused on the physical appearance because they assumed that Juliet was about that only, forgetting that through their production they did not include many ethnic minorities or LGBT with disability. Why should Juliet be open to only certain gender and of specific sexual orientation? If we are going to challenge society and demand inclusion then we have to do it for everyone, equality should be for all.