Wednesday, April 17, 2013

'I love the boy to pieces and I'm grief-stricken'

Here's a sneak peek at part of an interview we're running in the summer issue of BLOOM. It's with acclaimed British director Stephen Unwin.

Unwin is directing Peter Nichols’ A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, a 1967 comedy about parenting a child with profound disabilities. The play, at the Liverpool Playhouse and then the Rose Theatre in London, strikes close to home because Stephen’s son Joey, 16 (above left, with sister Bea), has severe epilepsy, an intellectual disability, and no speech.

BLOOM: What is A Day in the Death of Joe Egg about?

Stephen Unwin:
It’s a brilliant black comedy about how a married couple deals with being parents of a child who is profoundly disabled—both physically and intellectually.

Little Josephine is 11 and has cerebral palsy, sits in a wheelchair, has no speech, very limited capacity and suffers from epilepsy. It’s a weird comedy, which was such a hit in the 1960s, that describes the full range of emotions of parents and families of profoundly disabled children.

It ranges from jokes to despair to hard work to fantasy, to the parents having differences of views, to guilt, and the perspectives of other people. The grandmother goes around saying: ‘Wouldn’t she be lovely if she was running about?’ And somehow Peter Nichols makes sense of this extraordinary comedy.

It’s not funny in a simplistic way, but in a way that makes you howl. One of the things I like about the play is that it’s not moralistically or idealistically saying ‘We are all so happy to have these disabled children.’ Nor is it saying ‘It’s only a tragedy.’ The mother gains meaning through being Joe’s mother.

BLOOM: I’ve used black humour to cope with extreme situations. But will an audience with no experience with disability understand the humour in the same way you or I would?

Stephen Unwin:
None of the actors have experience parenting disabled kids, so one of the things I had to do is show them how the child is just a child.

People tend to have two responses to serious disability: one is terror and the other is optimistic reverence, and you and I know that neither is helpful.

The only answer is reality: ‘Yea, this is what the kid is like, and this is what caring is like.’ It’s nothing to be scared about, but I don’t buy the idea that ‘This is a blessing from God.’ That’s bullshit. Nor is it a punishment. I think it’s just part of reality and the only answer is acknowledging the reality.

BLOOM: What kind of things did you explain to the actors about parenting disabled children?

Stephen Unwin:
The child in the play goes to a day centre and the mom discovers that they haven’t changed her diaper all day. I was trying to explain what that’s like to the actress who plays the mom. She has young children, she knows what it’s like to change nappies on a one-year-old, but working out whether an 11-year-old has wet themselves? It’s quite hard physical work. But it’s what you do every day of your life and you’re not squeamish about it.

I’d explain what it’s like to give epilepsy medicine to a child who’s shaking, and you go ‘Shit, it’s gone all over the place,’ and you start again.

I try to show people what they take for granted. For example, when Joe has a seizure in the play they would all jump up to deal with it. No, I said, it’s not like that. This has been happening every day for 11 years, so it’s a different rhythm.

I remind actors of the reality of the situation because I have a parallel experience. But it’s not about my Joey. My Joey runs around and bounces and in many ways is healthy. It’s about Peter Nichols’ child with profound cerebral palsy, who died.

BLOOM: In The Guardian you wrote about your son’s 16th birthday—cake, candles, presents and early to bed—which isn’t what you’d expect with a typical teenager. But do you think we project our own sorrow on to our kids—our own wish that life was different for them—when from their perspective, they’re experiencing something in a rich way?

Stephen Unwin:
I think that’s right. But I don’t want to have my grief invalidated by anybody.

I think there’s a sort of pressure on parents of disabled kids to be marvellous, and I howl about it sometimes. I find it really fucking hard. I was brought up with language. I had a really old-fashioned English classical education. I’m over-educated, language is everything for me and I’m dealing with a son who has no speech.

I love the boy to pieces and I’m grief stricken and that’s not a contradiction, that’s real. Both are true and I feel really passionately that parents have to be allowed to have that range of emotions. This is the ultimate rollercoaster.

Sometimes it’s absolute bliss and sometimes I feel a great big hole inside, I feel hollow inside.

BLOOM: What have you learned from Joey’s lack of speech?

Stephen Unwin:
That there’s something beyond words. But that to me is a very challenging thing to have to understand because I write books and I direct Shakespeare and I’m completely classical about language.

If I had a son who couldn’t play football or fix a car, I’d say: ‘Oh well, I can’t play football, I can’t do any of that manly stuff.’ I can write and I read and read and read and I work on language all the time. So seeing that there is communication beyond language has been the biggest journey for me, and it’s about as far away as what I was programmed to do. It’s a difficult place to get to.


Thank you for this interview. Before my son Nicholas was born in 1988, I was a working actor and director. Nick is 24 now and has severe CP and probably has many of the challenges that are in "Joe Egg". I remember studying the play in theatre school, but I hadn't given it another thought till I read this article. I can't wait to re-read it. Stephen Unwin's description of his feelings about parenting his son are so honest. I wonder how his son's mother feels about these issues. I don't know... I didn't have any trouble discovering a whole other language for communicating with Nicholas and I still find that journey absolutely fascinating and wonderful every day. I am grief stricken by Nick's physical pain and by his sadness when he feels loss in his life. Just musing here, but perhaps we all live between grief and love, it's just that like everything about our kids with disabilities, with them it's in gigantic proportions.

Great interview. I sat for three days in Los Angeles doing jury duty several years ago with a kindly man who talked a lot about movies and actors with me. I told him a little about Sophie, and he told me about "Joe Egg." He turned out to be Peter Medak who directed the movie version. Small world.

Thanks for an interesting interview!

Hi Donna and Elizabeth -- Interesting connections to Joe Egg!

I found Peter Medak's movie here: