The winning play of the National Theatre’s New Views Festival, Perspective – written by 17-year-old autistic student Mackenzie Wellfare – explores the challenges faced by Leo, an autistic teenager. It does, of course, draw on his Wellfare’s own lived experience.
The almost 45-minute production is set in his bedroom, with Leo (JJ Green) issuing regular apologies to his best friend Shaun (Kwaku Mills) after every moment of exposition. “I’m sorry,” he’d say. It’s a balancing act for the youngster. When he’s masking and trying to repress a meltdown while maintaining a conversation with his best friend, something will inevitably falter, and we see it more and more as we move up the narrative arc. Leo needs to let it out, but he can’t – not right now.
Though make no mistake: this production isn’t one focussed on pity porn. There is honesty, yes, and as Wellfare says himself, it’s a representation of autism which “hasn’t been truly shown in modern media before”, so to the allistic (that’s ‘non-autistic’) eye, some scenes are striking in their honesty. Others, meanwhile, are vibrant and poetic, such as when Leo stims with a ball, experiencing autistic joy as the floor of his bedroom is awash with multicolour, his movements soundtracked by a calming piano score.
All of this is helped, I should add, by the fact that Green is, himself, autistic. So too is Evlyne Oyedokun, who plays his other friend Emma. Without diving too much into the point that disabled actors should play disabled roles, Green and Oyedokun bring an understanding to their characters which is so effortlessly endearing. “But I’m not a good actor,” Leo says at one point, as he talks about his love of the stage. Green very much is.
Yet when put with Mills’ Shaun, the dynamic between Leo and his best mate falters as a result of Mills’ on-the-nose and over-enthusiastic performance. I’ve never seen a teenager make binoculars with his eyes as he says the word ‘reading’, and his straight and less laid-back pronunciation of the word ‘dude’ is jarring and distracting. There is an argument to be made that the exaggeration is justified given what unfolds later in the play – a revelation which Mills delivers with conviction, though I’ll keep vague for the avoidance of spoilers – but it doesn’t stand up well to scrutiny. Most friends, in whatever form they may be, do not behave in this way, and if you saw Mills’ performance as an excitable superfan in Dark Sublime, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Perspectives is a play about grounding, and what it means to understand. As an inner voice tempts Leo to ‘let it out’, the story’s conclusion offers a centralisation which is optimistic and reassuring. To be understood is to experience liberation, and this play conveys that with heartfelt sincerity.
Anyone interested in watching Perspective can contact the National Theatre at firstname.lastname@example.org or via their website to request the link. The video can be watched online until 6 August, with British Sign Language (BSL) and captions available.
Photo: Cameron Slater Photography.