HERA’s newest digital opera We Ask These Questions of Everybody, livestreamed via Sound Festival appropriately so, leaves more questions unanswered than it answers. Incorporating transcripts from a Department of Work and Pensions assessment, the performance relies on questions to steer it—some bluntly bureaucratic, posed by a suit in an office, and some distinctly metaphysical and raised to its audience. The latter of these questions linger on most of all.
While the show’s all-disabled cast voices the questions that constantly beset them in a world “not built” for disabled persons (“Do I mention my disability? Do I not?” “How can I appear as uncomplicated as possible?”), they also pose crucial questions to their audience: How can we shed the stigmatic rhetoric around disability? What does it mean to be an outsider?
With staggering urgency and grace, writer-director Toria Banks and composer Amble Skuse have managed a careful balance between this inquisitive, formidable form of storytelling, and its unembellished visual presentation. The modest visual spectacle of the opera consigns all attention to the often repressed or misconstrued voices of the disabled community. The show’s visuals rely predominantly on the dynamic typography of the words spoken and sung: how they grow and multiply, how they scatter, interrupt, and dissolve before our eyes. Never tiring, nor dull, the protean effect of the words on screen foregrounds a uniquely disabled narrative, baring itself bravely and honestly in the face of government austerity.
Given the show is an adaptation of real welfare transcripts, its digital structure also highlights the ignorance and inefficiencies of government austerity towards the disabled. As the disabled cast’s own stories and opinions flash before the screen, they point out the demeaning nature of the assessment that is simultaneously being performed, highlighting the deep rift in understanding between the two. This is further accentuated by the show’s clever use of social media as an active visual and vocal platform connecting the disabled community.
In this sense, We Ask These Questions of Everybody is an insistent reminder that this year’s new wave of digital theatre offers more than zoom puppet shows and YouTube bootlegs. It has found, or rather created, a transposable form of theatre that is profoundly relevant to the digital lives we lead now, where words can question the institutions built to suppress us, form resilient communities out of neglected individuals, and even incite the re-evaluation of the lifestyles we take for granted, and which may harm or exclude others.