It was good to hear pioneering campaigner for equal recognition of disabled actors Mat Fraser on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row the other evening. As someone who was born with arms stunted in the womb by the effects of the infamous morning-sickness drug Thalidomide, Mat knows what he’s talking about.
His work in disability theatre has included the self-penned Thalidomide: The Musical and a one-man show called Sealboy Freak – a body of work that has upset a few people along the way. I admit I find it all a little uncomfortable myself but Mat is adamant that it’s better to be upfront than accept that you’re going to be marginalised. I first met this remarkable actor when he was appearing as Puck in a radical re-reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Sitting in on rehearsals I watched as the play – part physical theatre, part musical – plunged Shakespeare into a lurid urban underworld of strip clubs, pimps and pole dancers. It was a production guaranteed to drive purists to near apoplexy. It was designed to make waves. Mat proved both eloquent and wise in his defence of the production.
His Puck was a dope-dealing meddler determined to make sure the course of true love would never run smoothly. He loved it, explaining that his opportunities as a Shakespearian actor were few. “I’m unlikely to be cast as Hamlet.” he told me. “I’d really screw up the sword-fight.” But then he pointed out there’s another reason he would never be cast as the King of Denmark. He looked me in the eye: “Be honest: it wouldn’t be realistic to have a short-armed gentleman like me playing Hamlet. If a baby born to be King was like this” – he waved a tiny arm to emphasise the point – “they’d kill him and get another one.” He burst into laughter.
It’s was an interesting and effective way to underline how the human race are fearful of those who are different and how the world of theatre, with its politically correct wittering, is not a lot better than anywhere else. Which is why Mat continues to be determined to make whatever difference he can.
Appearing on Front Row with his wife, the groundbreaking American burlesque performer Julie Atlas Muz, Mat was ostensibly promoting their new show Beauty and the Beast which is currently playing London’s Young Vic Theatre. He used the opportunity to explain his position as a campaigner and to discuss a few of the not-so-easy choices he has had to make. He spoke of critics in the disability arts community who saw Freak Shows as “the pornography of the disabled” but argued that, far from being exploitative, the genre offers an opportunity for disabled people to be treated as equals and be fiscally independent.
It also, he insists, provides a platform to talk about Thalidomide and the dangers of corporate pharmaceutical crime. This is a mission of necessity. Mat admits he sometimes gets fed up being associated only with disability theatre. “I’d love to play Dave the neighbour,” he says. Trouble is, as he points out, casting directors, writers and producers rarely see Dave as someone with short arms.
*Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz appear in Beauty and the Beast at the Young Vic until 21 December, Young Vic, London