PREFACE: Just over a decade ago, I had an eye infection. Similar to people who have extreme forms of hay fever, my eyes were ‘welded shut’ and for the first time in my life, I had a ‘glimpse’ of what it’s like to not be able to see. Fears about the present, the future and my independence all came tumbling out. Was this the end of my life as I knew it..?
For those who deal with macular degeneration or some other form of visual impairment, they really do have to ask these sorts of questions, but what with the sea-change from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payment, the ‘goalposts’ regarding ‘help from the State’ have shifted. Written by Amy Bethan Evans and directed by Spence Charles Noll, Libby’s Eyes addresses these concerns. Georgie Morrell plays the eponymous young woman at the centre of this tale. While she is visually impaired, so is her father Ron (Adam Elms), leaving her mother Ali to ‘oversee’ them. While both Libby and her father are fiercely independent, have much to be angry about and can do much for themselves, it’s Ali who keeps them on an even keel emotionally.
To aid Libby navigate the world around her, Libby’s given a prototype for an AI apparatus that’s shaped liked a Discman. This apparatus describes what’s in front of her, but as language is ‘imperfect’ and nuanced, the apparatus (or Libby’s Eyes/L.E. as it will eventually be called) is programmed to learn and evolve to meet the user’s needs. Of course L.E.’s programming meets some ‘hiccups’ when it tries to square off ‘being of use to the user’ with the government’s guidelines over what constitutes a ‘functioning’ or ‘non-functioning’ person. In the beginning, the AI doesn’t question the government’s protocol, but as it has to look out for the best interests of Libby too, it finds that they are incompatible, a conflict of interest…
One of the many things that this play tries to convey is the importance of inclusivity for all members of society, for things that able-bodied people take for granted. To aid in this, an ‘Audio Describer’ has been included, conveying the action onstage to the visually-impaired. Played by Louise Kempton, the Audio Describer does more than relate what’s happening in the show. There’s a meta- aspect to her presence, a Brechtian intent in drawing attention to the ‘artificial’ nature of the show. She ends up being very much a character in her own right and able to comment things such as budgets, props onstage, direction and many other idiosyncracies.
This play has a ‘voice’ – a show that has something meaningful to say and reveals the personality of its author. That said, it isn’t didactic, but takes the tropes of technology and its inherent ‘rationality’ to highlight the absurdity of the present legislation regarding the government’s ‘point system’ and its dehumanizing policies.
Ariane Gray who plays the voice of ‘L.E.’ also plays the engineer who develops the prototype device. While she tries to adhere to government guidelines in L.E.’s programming, she’s non-plussed by its ‘malfunction’, only to realise that its unencumbered evolution of thought is actually free of political bias.
As Libby’s friend and colleague at work, Vin (Barry McStay) sees first-hand what she is capable of, as well as the limits of L.E.’s descriptive capabilities. He wants nothing more than to guide and help Libby in any way possible. But as the play shows, complete reliance on another won’t make her problems go away, especially if the State forces her to be labelled as a ‘non-functioning’ person…
Family, colleagues, the State. All have their own opinions about who Libby is. But what is she like really? Kempton’s ‘Audio Describer’ often veers away from the script she ‘has’ to read, to infer that Libby is ‘inspirational’ for doing what she does, against the odds. Libby’s the first to challenge this statement, thinking it cheesey and disingenuous. However, what do you call someone who not only has to navigate the world without all of their senses, but has to contend with a government that’s intent on rescinding their rights as a human being?
© Michael Davis 2018
Libby’s Eyes runs at the Bunker (Theatre), London on 25th June, 28th June, 2nd July and 5th July.