“It’s not the winning that counts, it’s the taking part.” This may seem like a hollow message, but it’s one that this cleverly constructed verbatim play, based upon interviews with past and present Olympic athletes and aspiring competitors, manages to make feel true in a way it never usually does.
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Following the team’s 2008 show, Motherland, which won plenty of its own awards, writers Steve Gilroy and Richard Stockwell spent two years gathering stories and have collated an impressive range of insights and experiences in this rich and uplifting piece of theatre.
Through clever juxtapositions of the accounts, we meet Will Hardy, a 13-year-old torch bearer and swimmer in the North-east, who lost both of his legs and an arm following meningitis; Charmian Rawlings, née Welsh, a diver in the 1950s, from Thornley, who talks of the pain of “crashing” into water that can tear skin; Paralympic wheelchair racer Anne Wafula Strike who describes her unlikely journey from Kenya to trying out for Team GB, and many, many others, with 400-metre runner-turned-motivation-speaker Roger Black at the centre.
What the piece – produced by Newcastle’s Murmur and Live Theatre – does so successfully is show how the stories of these extraordinary, yet in some ways ordinary, people are equally inspiring whether they end on a podium with a medal or no “prize” at all.
Projected text lists athletes’ names and sports, but this is often brutally followed with the phrase “not qualified” as the five excellent performers deliver moving descriptions of overcoming illness and injury and shattering preconceptions of disability in a still unequal society.
There is dignity in defeat when it isn’t really defeat, but also a tragic beauty in the fact that there is only a brief period in our lives when any of us could even hope to achieve such physical excellence.
Some of the stories are fully developed and some are left as brief insights, tantalisingly under-explored, but together they form a powerful voice challenging all of us to be the best we can be, whatever we’re doing.
Until tomorrow. Today 2:50pm.
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