Aspergers Syndrome, Autism, Billy Through the Window, Edinburgh Fringe, Mental Illness, Philip Ridley, Pleasance Courtyard, Sean Michael Verey, Supporting Wall, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Theatre Review, Tonight with Donny Stixx
[The following contains spoilers.]
Heavens above, not another one!
Donny Stixx is created by Philip Ridley and brought to the stage, with an unnerving, almost hypnogogic lucidity, by Sean Michael Verey. His story is told beneath the Pleasance Courtyard. Donny is seemingly a superstar child magician, who is recapping his career to us, the audience, in a kind of This Is Your Life retrospective. Over the course of the play, however, it becomes dreadfully apparent that Donny is a fantasist, whose tiny audiences are only ever put up to it by his aunt. His mother and father have both died recently, and his aunt encourages his magic because it makes him “look happy.” After Donny signs up for an open mic gig at the local shopping centre, it is finally drummed into him how worthless his performances really are. The once unreliable narrator now has nowhere to hide. Yet Donny is still driven unstoppably onwards, towards a climax of bloodshed and mayhem.
This show has received several five or four star reviews, but only Matt Trueman at Fest has asked the obvious question: does Donny suffer from autism? “Tonight with Donny Stixx” should be really reviewed in conjunction with Bellow Theatre’s Underbelly show “Billy Through the Window.” In both performances, very talented adult actors play children who are either autistic or else who are heavily implied as being autistic. Both plays shy away from medical precision. They are infatuated with the gorgeous dysfunctionality which is generally associated with autism, but realistically evoking autism’s exact characteristics might risk sacrificing some of the dysfunctionality which is, for them, the honey from the cane.
Henceforth Donny Stixx is a bit weird, a bit lacking in empathy, a bit overly fixated with every microscopic detail, and in this he shares certain crucial attributes with Christopher Boone, the child hero of Mark Haddon’s celebrated 2003 novel about Asperger’s Syndrome, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. But at the same time, you are granted a clearly-labelled loophole out of an autism diagnosis. This is admittedly a ropey psychoanalytical get-out, involving blatantly Oedipal politics. Putting an autistic character on stage and then pretending that he is not autistic in this way might seem like the most barefaced dishonesty. Still, “Tonight with Donny Stixx” is a story which has vaccinated itself against autism.
This is just not good enough. Ridley’s play takes an evidently autistic young man and exhibits him as a monster. Donny Stixx is thrown at our feet to be laughed at, with ghoulish Bedlam laughter. He is a freak – a psychopath – a marvel – roll up, roll up! Prepare to be amazed by this beast which we have tracked down for you! Ridley duly shows off his autistic mutant with exactly the same misguided pride that Donny plays at being a magician.
Nonetheless, it is not all innocent fun. You might have noticed the profound nastiness which flowers throughout this story, the unsparing relish with which Donny is humiliated and stripped naked in front of us. At first you laugh but then you shudder and wish that you could look away. You wish that you had not taken quite so much pleasure in Donny. He is not a cuddly freak. There was never any hope for this character and he is increasingly making a persuasive case for his own extermination. Luckily there is a sort of invisible perspex between him and the audience. He can see us but he is unable to interact with us. What a relief – we are totally segregated from him!
So how does “Tonight with Donny Stixx” get away with such a grossly politically-incorrect story? To be frank with you, I have no idea. I don’t know how “Billy Through the Window” got away with it either. At both shows, the actors received standing ovations. Both shows were reviewed with kid gloves by dove-eyed critics. And even more bafflingly, both shows have been carefully built over many months by keenly clever writers and accomplished performers. It is imperative, however, that these wicked and degenerate plays, with their almost fascist mentality, are challenged. They are utterly unacceptable.