Theatre preview: The Government Inspector, West Yorkshire Playhouse

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A cast of disabled and able-bodied actors bring a new production of The Government Inspector to the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Nick Ahad reports.

The word disabled contains within it an interesting notion. If someone in a wheelchair is perfectly able to do something if the conditions are right, is it the person who is disabled, or is society responsible for dis-abling them?

It is this way of looking at things that has helped to create a situation where a new production of The Government Inspector can make it to the stage of the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Ramps on the Moon is a network of seven theatres, including the Playhouse and Sheffield Theatres, which are dedicated to increasing opportunities for so-called disabled people.

Using integrated audio description, captioning and British Sign Language, the new production of The Government Inspector is fully accessible for deaf and disabled audiences and actors.

Kiruna Stamell, who plays Anna in the production, has a rare form of dwarfism. She has appeared in the Ricky Gervais show Life’s Too Short, a number of stage plays and film director Baz Luhrmann created the role of La Petite Princesse for her in his movie Moulin Rouge.

“I’m very interested in disabled rights and disabled people’s activism,” she says. “I’m an idealist and would love a world that’s an equal playing field. Sometimes that means that disabled people need facilitation to have the barriers removed. You can’t just say ‘you’re all equal and good luck but I’m not putting a ramp in’. You need to say ‘you’re all equal and I will install a ramp to ensure equal access’.”

David Harrower has adapted the Nikolai Gogol comedy for a new audience. The play tells the story of a government inspector due to arrive in a small Russian town, sending the town’s dodgy bureaucrats into a frenzy.

The mayor of the town has been taking kickbacks, he’s neglected his duties, the hospital is a health hazard, the school is a war zone, the soldiers don’t have matching trousers and the mayor never quite finished his building programme.

Director Roxana Silbert calls the play a ‘masterpiece I’ve always wanted to direct’. It might also have resonance for contemporary audiences, given that it’s set in a world of corruption where everyone’s moral compass has gone awry.

It is recognised as a great play, the work of one of history’s great satirists, but the real significance of this play is in the small steps it represents towards equality for actors of all backgrounds.

Stamell says: “I want to feel like the work and the art that I make explores what it is to be human and it reaches the understanding of that. And that’s why I believe the stories of disabled people, because we are people like everybody else, deserve to be told.

“There is also so much for the middle, the average, person to gain from learning and understanding about the experiences of those on the peripheries. If you are non-disabled today, anything could happen to you tomorrow and you could be joining our club and, rather than fearing our club or thinking our club is too hard and not sexy, it would be awesome if you recognised that our club is just as cool as yours but that we sometimes need reasonable adjustments to access the world.”

Even in a world as outwardly progressive and liberal as the world of theatre, there are still barriers. Equality is a long way off in all senses. British theatre, the perception tells us, is dominated by people from a typical background: white, middle-class and well educated. If you don’t fit into these boxes, the way into theatre has been barred – or at the very least, more difficult. Equality in terms of racial diversity is something theatres are striving towards. Ramps on the Moon will help balance another iniquity – that of people who have disabilities. “There is something special that the diversity of this cast brings,” says Stamell. “It inspires creativity because you are dealing with different needs – not radically different, they are just an extension of what it is to be human.”

At the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, to April 30.