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It’s rare that Beauty and the Beast needs an X rating. But Improbable Theatre’s new version does – largely to ward off anyone seeking a festive family outing to the Young Vic. Its Beauty is American burlesque artist Julie Atlas Muz; its Beast is her husband Mat Fraser, and the pair spend much of the show naked – and some of it with their heads between each other’s legs.
Even so, a different set of limbs might draw more attention. Fraser has congenital phocomelia, a condition caused, in his case, by in-utero exposure to the drug Thalidomide. His arms are small and flipper-like (phocomelia literally means “seal-limbed”) and he has no thumbs – the evolutionary connotations of which he often plays on in performance.
Disability arts remain something of a ghettoised scene in Britain. When they breach the mainstream, such works are often celebratory, concerned with understanding, even making disability palatable. (“Heart of gold charity orgies,” Fraser calls them.) When, for example, theatre company Told By An Idiot staged the same fairytale in 2007, Beauty was played by Lisa Hammond, an actor of restricted growth.
Fraser and Muz take the opposite approach, confronting the perceived “beastliness” of disability and sex head-on. It’s the combination that pushes taboos. As Improbable Theatre director Phelim McDermott asks: “Sex and disability is a big issue. Can you show it on stage? Can you even talk about it?”
Fraser’s work is often confrontational – he does a strip routine using false arms – but he has never retreated from the mainstream either, starring in the groundbreaking Channel 4 sitcom Cast Offs, and drumming with Coldplay at the Paralympics closing ceremony in London last year.
In 2001, he made a “chin-stroking” television documentary comparing contemporary disabled artists with the freak show performers of yesteryear. Tracking one 1920s act led him to New York’s Coney Island, where curator Dick Ziglun ordered him to perform onstage as Sealo the Seal Boy. “He just went, ‘You’re never going to know what it was like on that stage unless you actually do it,’ ” Fraser recalls. “I did a week and I was hooked.”
It was, he says, a welcome break from Britain’s politicised disability arts. While acknowledging the importance of political correctness, Fraser often felt patronised by “super-understanding ... thinking it was solidarity. You go to Coney Island and they want to employ you because of your funny, freaky arms – and that’s fine.”
While there, he met Muz, star of Coney Island’s striptease. A moon-faced blonde with a husky Detroit drawl, Muz, 40, is a luminary of the New York underground arts scene. For years, she was head mermaid at the Coral Room, performing with live fish in a 9,000-gallon saltwater tank. She proposed a collaboration.
“It’s a very natural [combination],” she says. The two sideshows have always sat side-by-side. “Crazy naked ladies and freaks go together like bread and butter.” (When the couple married last year, in a ceremony with four gunshots and 30 zombie bridesmaids, the congregation chanted “One of us. One of us” – a reference to the 1932 sideshow horror film Freaks.)
However, their first attempt at Beauty and the Beast, back in 2009, was described by The New York Times as “perpetual corny innuendo”, a show altogether reliant on “sexual explicitness”. McDermott calls it “the crazy, fast food version”.
Part of the problem was context. On the New York cabaret scene – which Muz describes as “late-night, trashy, end-of-the-pier-fun” – no one blinks at this stuff. “Go to Coney Island,” adds McDermott, “and people expect nudity and something pretty out-there.” That’s not the case elsewhere, so the pair approached McDermott about (as the director puts it) “dragging that into theatre” with its “irreverence and brain-changing hysteria” intact.
The hope is that the contextual shift will enhance its politics. As Fraser puts it: “One of the arguments against nudity on stage is that people say, ‘It pulls me out of the play. I stop seeing the character and just see the nude actor.’ But that’s exactly the same excuse – and it is an excuse – people give for not casting disabled actors. They need a remove, the safety net of knowing that it’s pretend. They can’t see the acting if the actor’s really disabled.”
McDermott has also pushed the couple to entwine personal material with the enacted fairytale. Sometimes, he says, you can’t differentiate between Beauty, Beast, Muz and Fraser. “What’s beast and what’s beauty?” he asks. “They’re all parts of ourselves. There’s a part of me that’s beautiful – somewhere. There’s a part of me that’s beastly.” That gives added weight to Fraser and Muz’s determination to change the fairytale’s ending. The original ends with a transformation, which Fraser likens to sanitised Victorian versions of King Lear. “I feel we’ve all been peddled this fake happy ending and what we’re doing is finding the original: she falls in love with the beast, dammit.”
Personal testimony is an Improbable hallmark, along with a resistance to fixed genres. The company is best-known for Shockheaded Peter, its Olivier Award-winning vaudeville, but it has also made operas, puppet shows and outdoor spectaculars. Its mid-scale work, however, is determinedly personal. In Panic (2009), McDermott drew and expanded on experiences of depression. In Life Game, inherited from Ken Campbell, they improvise around a real person’s life-story.
“That’s how you tell stories about disability,” McDermott says. “You just tell people’s stories. That’s what Life Game is. You start the show. You don’t know the guest’s story and by the end, you’ve discovered it was a disability story.” He continues: “I’ve always been interested in difference, the idea of the other. One of the things that theatre can do brilliantly is to help people see that that other – whatever it is – is all of us.”
That’s key for Fraser. He feels it crucial that Improbable isn’t a specifically disability-led arts organisation – although they have often explored disability in the past. It allows him as a disabled performer to play big subsidised theatres. “I get really angry about it, actually,” he says, before lambasting the lack of disability arts programming in mainstream theatres. “They don’t show life. The National Theatre: my taxes part-fund it, so why don’t I see my life on stage there? This is the sort of thing they want to put on their stage.”
Muz chips in with a necessary reminder. “Do not bring your kids.”
‘Beauty and the Beast’, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, tonight, then touring, improbable.co.uk
Young Vic, London, December 4-21, youngvic.org