A thriller about men being trapped in their own heads
First-time playwright Christine Dwyer Hickey feels ‘very exposed’ as opening night looms
Christine Dwyer Hickey watches actors Michael Hough and Desmond Hickey at rehearsals for Snow Angels. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
‘He’s a rabbit that has stage experience,” author Christine Dwyer Hickey explains. “He’s quite laid-back for a rabbit.”
The rabbit she is talking about is the non-human cast member in her atmospheric first play, Snow Angels . The unnamed pet has a prominent role in the play, which she describes as “a psychological thriller about men being trapped in their own heads”.
We’re in a former office space on Benburb Street in Dublin, where Snow Angels is in rehearsal. The setting of the play is winter in suburban Dublin, with snow falling outside. It is appropriately chilly in the vast, empty space, with director Rosemary McKenna seated virtually on top of a portable heater.
Dwyer Hickey is already a highly successful novelist and short-story writer. This is her first play, and she is visibly nervous. Opening night is less than a week away, and she looks around the rehearsal space with an expression akin to shock. “It is terrifying as it comes nearer to opening night,” she admits. “I feel very exposed.”
Snow Angels is the story of two brothers, Sebastian and Oscar, and their housemate Jim, stuck in their suburban house by visible and invisible barriers. The brothers are played by actual brothers, Michael and Ger Hough. Jim is played by Dwyer Hickey’s own son, Desmond Hickey. And like the trio in the play, the Hough brothers and Hickey also shared a house together in suburban Dublin.
“The play started off as an experiment,” says Dwyer Hickey. In her foreword to the programme, she writes: “I made this play, much as I’ve made my novels and short stories, from the bag of scraps I carry around in my mind: fragments of memory and light; glimpses of life I’ve noticed in passing. The occasional tightening of the gut. Whatever I’ve seen when I kicked over the rock.”
Maureen White, Rough Magic’s dramaturg, helped her shape the play, which was originally more than four hours long. “I had to learn that a play needs to be structured in a different way to a novel. It needs a central idea. It’s not like a novel, where you can have an idea and just wander off.” The play now runs to one hour and 20 minutes, without an interval. “The hardest thing about writing a play is not knowing how much control you should have,” she says. “Playwrights tell you to interfere more, and directors tell you to interfere less.”
In the play, Sebastian, the older brother, has just written his first novel, to the clear resentment of his sibling. Oscar picks up a dictionary from his brother’s desk and spits out: “Must be a million words sat on this desk just waiting to be plucked out and cake-mixed into a novel.” Resentment and jealousy are recurring themes that run through the drama.
“Their conflicts are about disappointment,” says Dwyer Hickey. “They’ve been ignoring it, and turning on each other.”
There is frequently criticism of the fact that there are few strong roles for women in new Irish plays. While Dwyer Hickey is, of course, free to write what she wishes, is this something she was aware of when creating her characters? She looks surprised. “It’s difficult for everyone to get parts, surely? I always enjoy writing from the male perspective.”
Trapped in their suburban house, a house that Jim has already said he wants to move out of, the trio turn viciously on each other. The rooms of the house appear to become ever smaller as the occupants discover they cannot escape from them.
Dwyer Hickey wanted to write about young men because she thinks they are more interesting from a dramatic viewpoint. “Young women are very focused and on track very early with their careers. It would have been a totally different play if the three characters were female instead of men. Women fight about different things.”
What was it like seeing her son playing one of the characters? “I haven’t been to many rehearsals,” she says. “I switch off. I don’t discuss it with him any more than I do with the other two.”
Dwyer Hickey has funded much of the costs of the production, and most of those involved are working gratis, including the actors. She has also been supported by Rough Magic, with help from their dramaturg, and by Project, which is helping with the venue.
“I went into it all so innocently,” says Dwyer Hickey. “I recognise now that it is a hard slog and a difficult process. I was naive in lots of ways – but do you abandon ship, or do you continue? And I thought, ‘Why not continue?’ Life is long.”
While the characters in Snow Angels cannot get out of their house, an intruder from the outside world, in the form of a rabbit, has managed to get in. In rehearsal, the rabbit – a symbol for escapism in different forms – resembles a large white fur hat, and is handed around from character to character, when not trying to hide under the sofa. It should be pointed out no actual rabbits were harmed in the production of Snow Angels .
Snow Angels runs from Thursday until March 15 at Project Arts Centre , Dublin