Resistance – a review
Written by Maria Oshodi and directed by Eileen Dillon, Resistance explores the evolution of Jacques Lusseyran as a teenage hero of the French Resistance.
Joe McConnell went along to the opening night to review the performance by Extant.
The portrayal of the central character is shared by two actors: Mark Scales makes his stage debut as the younger Lusseyran, while John Wilson Goddard plays the older man. It is through the interplay of these two parts that the play's powerfully developed central theme emerges: the transformation of blindness as loss into that of an unequivocal celebration of blindness as another powerful, liberating and equally valid way of visioning the world.
Sound like light passed right through me. I entered a world of enchantment, which supported my life, nourishing me because it was real.
The stage for the play Resistance showing three characters framed by scaffolding
Extant present Resistance. Photo by Nik Mackey
Throughout this multi-layered work, the writing skilfully avoids the dusty clichés that could have accumulated around a tale of heroism and the Resistance.
The parallel between the oppression of the fascist occupation and society's denial of the rights of blind people is compellingly drawn. Through one act and epilogue, the action of the play tracks backward and forward from a central point of reference in time: Lusseyran's interrogation and torture at the hands of the Gestapo (chillingly represented by the General as played by Gerard McDermott). The resulting fragmentation enriches the structure of the play by avoiding linear chronology and allowing different time frames to comment upon each other. The lines delivered by the older Jacques in the epilogue evoking the liberation of awareness through blindness are stunning in their eloquence.
The play renders a very strong piece of dramatic storytelling boldly using physical theatre and embedded with devices, which deliver elements of audio description integral to the dialogue and not as an external bolt-on. However, I have to admit to being left wondering as to whether every visual element had been conveyed in some way or another by the end of the piece. Had choices been made which decided that some elements were not essential?
The stage set for the play Resistance by Extant Theatre Company
The set centres on two sparsely constructed mobile towers of scaffolding. Around, through and upon these structures, the choreography and performances achieve a fluidity of movement, which is nearly always impressive and exhilarating. This is a strong testament to the unstinting pioneering work of Extant in researching and developing performance and stagecraft techniques for blind and visually impaired performers. The choreography includes a sequence where the actors surreally jive with one another as they furtively build their clandestine resistance cell. This was exciting and effective but all too short and left you longing for more of this kind of experimental dance approach to be included in the mix.
On a few occasions, the actors' voices are overwhelmed by the pre-recorded score (composed by Adrian Lee) which otherwise added another well-crafted dimension to the production. But this was the opening night and should be easy to adjust eventually.
While the play is highly satisfying and compelling on an intellectual level, it sometimes comes across as less than emotionally engaging. The actors often have to deliver quite wordy passages in a rather hyper-real way in order to fill the audience in with background information. The depth of the themes and issues within Resistance were riveting. However, a few anti-heroic elements would have presented a more fully rounded portrayal of Lusseyran and would have made it easier to empathise on a human level.
Guardian Saturday 30 April 2005
Riverside Studios London *** out of *****
Jacques Lusseyran was 16 when the Second World War broke out. He was also blind but when France was occupied by the Nazi's, his blindness didn't stop him setting up a resistance group. Nor did it stop him, after the war, becoming a university professor, despite unrepealed laws passed by the Vichy regime that forbade blind people holding public office.
The title of Maria Oshodi's play – inspired by Lusseyran's autobiography – has a double meaning. Taking the form of Lusseyran's interrogation by a Nazi officer who is blind to the truth because he cannot see the visual impairment of his suspect, the piece is not only about Lusseyran's resistance to the German occupation but also his resistance to the idea of blindness as a form of privation. 7 when he lost his sight, he said that
“The accident had ended me living in front of things and started me living inside of them.”
He believed that blindness should not be seen as a deficiency but as another state of perception.
Transposed to the stage, this might simply be worthy and wordy. There are times in the production by Extant, a company managed for and by, blind arts practitioners, when it is worthy and wordy. But there are also moments when form and content are matched so perfectly that the sighted catch a tiny glimpse of what it must be like to be visually impaired. Oshodi's cleverly fragmented text, eschews a linier narrative in favour of something fractured, much more akin to the way a blind person gathers information about the world. Eileen Dillon's production is sometimes pedestrian, at others it explodes into white-hot light, dark shadows, whispered secrets and mysteries. It is an uneven evening, but the sighted members of the audience who may have no need of the touch tour that precedes the show will feel by the end than they have felt something as well as seen it. Lyn Gardner.
Review of Extant and Resistance – Versailles 2005
Resistance play sees blindness as “a state of perception” by Bernard Besserglik
The darkness is total. The lamp's harsh rays – standard interrogator's equipment, of course – create only the faintest glimmer on the retina. The Gestapo chief barks out his questions, but for the prisoner his blindness is a refuge, his vulnerability paradoxically keeping his tormentor at a respectful distance.
The scene, from the play Resistance, is set in a basement in the rue des Saussaies, the Gestapo's Paris headquarters. Its piquancy derives from the fact that not only is the actor playing the resistance fighter blind, so too is the actor playing the interrogator.
Adapted from the autobiography of the blind writer Jacques Lusseyran, Resistance has just completed a brief European tour and is to be performed one last time at the Albany Theatre, Deptford, next Thursday.
The play by Maria Oshodi, herself a blind writer, is a striking attempt to deal dramatically with the issue of blindness in a way that rejects pity and presents blind people as – to adopt the politically-correct but in this case perfectly apposite term – differently abled.
As recounted in his book “And There was Light”, Lusseyran lost his sight at the age of eight and then in 1940, still aged only 16, joined an underground group resisting the German occupation of France.
Captured, interrogated by the Gestapo and finally deported to Buchenwald, he survived – one of only 30 to do so of the 2,000 rounded up with him – and went on to become a noted educationalist, providing valuable insights into the phenomenon of blindness as a form of revelation.
His story fascinated Oshodi, a writer-director who lost her sight while she was a student and, overcoming innumerable difficulties, went on to form her own company, the Extant Theatre, staffed by blind and partially-sighted actors and performers.
“When I picked up the book I was hooked,” she recalled. “I'd been doing a lot of work in the area of awareness and perception, and I could see that the kind of transformational experience he was talking about was accessible to everyone.”
Resistance clocked up 29 performances in a gruelling seven-week nationwide tour last spring. All six cast members were blind or visually impaired, and though she counts the tour a success, Oshodi felt the production suffered from the vicious circle that has dogged all efforts to raise standards in theatre for people with disability: without experience, it is extremely difficult for disabled actors to achieve professional standards, but lacking professionalism, they are provided few opportunities to develop their skills. Over the summer therefore she recast the play and now uses only professional actors, some of whom are visually impaired and some not.
“In rehearsals this set up a potentially difficult situation, but it's created all sorts of interesting dynamics and subtexts,” she noted.
In the past week Resistance has played twice in France and once in Zagreb, each time in the context of drama festivals for groups with disabilities.
The performances in Paris, coming on the sixtieth anniversary of the war's ending, had a particular resonance. One of these was in the grandiose setting of the Montansier Theatre in Versailles, on a stage inaugurated more than two centuries ago by the doomed king Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette.
The symbolism was not lost on Oshodi who said she felt as if by coming to France, this project reaches its culmination.”
The play's future after the Albany production is uncertain, but Oshodi feels that the projet was born under a good sign. Funding and other difficulties meant that the production had to be postponed from last year to this, bringing it into line with the end-of-war anniversaries. “It was almost uncanny,” she said. “When we put it on last spring there were so many coincidences of timing involving the characters and the actors as they spoke their lines, almost to the day. At times I could feel Lusseyran's presence hovering over us.”
The dramatic potential of Lusseyran's story has not escaped Hollywood's notice and, as Oshodi discovered only after her work on the play was well advanced, the performance rights have already been bought up. But the author's family – Lusseyran died in a car accident in 1971 – agreed not to obstruct the production.
While drama is widely seen as beneficial in its effects on groups with physical or learning disabilities, Oshodi firmly rejects the notion that her work has anything to do with therapy. “We're self-led, everyone running the show is blind – the buck stops here. Our theatre is about self-determination, about art, about looking for new forms of expression. We're trying to use disability, not deny it.”
As a result, the play makes no concessions to the spectator, least of all to a sentimental view of disability, chopping up the time-lines within the story in a manner that Oshodi says will challenge the audience. The text includes provisions designed to enable visually impaired spectators to keep track of physical movements onstage.
The guiding philosophy behind Oshodi's work – she has also written for the BBC and Channel Four – is a text from a later Lusseyran work, “Against the Pollution of the I”, in which he wrote: “If blindness is regarded as a privation, it becomes privation. (…) If however we regard blindness as another state of perception, another realm of experience, everything becomes possible.”
On his release from captivity in Germany in 1945, Lusseyran found himself pitched into a new struggle. Legislation passed by the collaborationist Vichy regime in 1942 barring blind people from the profession on which he had set his sights, teaching, remained in force under the succeeding fourth and fifth republics.
It took him 17 years of stubborn campaigning before he succeeded in having the law repealed and he was able to pursue and eventually achieve his objective of becoming a university professor.
Lusseyran compared the blind, and the sense of exclusion that they often suffer, with religious or national minorities, arguing that they are at best tolerated by mainstream society and rarely understood. The same is true, he said, of other minorities defined by disability. For Oshodi, cultural initiatives such as the Extant theatre group are a valuable resource in resisting the pigeon-holing that appears designed to cast them to the margins.