Family takes centre stage in new Abbey Theatre production

One Good Turn by Úna McKevitt will be performed to a limited live audience – and online

Writer Úna McKevitt and director Emma Jordan at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin where One Good Turn will open on June 21st. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

Writer Úna McKevitt and director Emma Jordan at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin where One Good Turn will open on June 21st. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

 

When writer Úna McKevitt was commissioned in January 2020 to write a play for the Abbey Theatre, she was delighted but slightly wary. “I had heard that it takes about eight to 12 years for [a commission] to actually be produced,” she jokes. “But here we are in 2021 and we are in rehearsal.”

One Good Turn will premiere on the main stage of the Abbey Theatre this month. “It’s a very quick turnaround,” she continues. “But with the pandemic, I had, in effect, nothing else to distract me from writing. It was a bit like ‘well I am stuck here at home. I can’t do anything. But I do have a commission, so I might as well just get to it’.” One Good Turn marks McKevitt’s eighth credit as a playwright, but it also marks a significant shift in her writing practice. Her work on plays such as Victor & Gord, 565+, The Big Deal and Singlehood was defined by a documentary approach to drama. “I would collect and arrange material, and the [resulting performance] would be presentational: people talking to the audience. It is very ‘fly on the wall’.”

McKevitt was first commissioned by the Abbey several years ago to write something in this docu-drama vein, but “it turned out it wasn’t the right approach for the project we were doing, and in the end we decided not to stage it. But it was a great experience and that was the right decision”. 

In the intervening years, McKevitt has been “trying to progress in terms of the building blocks [of playwriting]. I suppose I wanted to write a play that would have a journey of some kind. That sort of writing doesn’t really come naturally to me”. When she started writing 10 years ago, she explains, “I wouldn’t really have known how to tell a story by putting [fictional] characters in a situation, and my interest in personal history overpowered my willingness to try for a long time. I just thought, ‘Oh, plays are really hard!’ But I still found ways to tell the stories I was interested in.” One Good Turn was “a big challenge to myself, and a big step forward in that respect. It was written word for word on my laptop. It was just me working on my own”.

I didn’t want to write about ‘care’ per se, but about the experience of everyone in a family when they are dealing with illness in the home.

The result is a drama that McKevitt, a decade ago, would certainly have admired as “a proper play”. Set in a family home over the course of a single day, it explores the domestic challenges of long-term illness. Frank has emphysema, his wife Brenda is exhausted from dealing with him, his daughters Aoife and Fiona are bickering among themselves, and Helen, Frank’s nurse, is trying to hold the family together. If a novice playwright were to try and ascribe it to a genre, they would classify it in the domestic comedy range.

“I wouldn’t be the most topical of writers,” McKevitt says, as she explains the background to her inspiration, “but the family dynamics of my own life are definitely present. My father did have emphysema and I was inspired by that experience to [consider in the play] what it is like for people to be around someone who is in decline. I didn’t want to write about ‘care’ per se, but about the experience of everyone in a family when they are dealing with illness in the home. It probably sounds corny, but I wanted to write something that might give some sort of relief to people in similar situations, that they might see how lucky we are to have families looking after each other. I wanted it to be very affectionate, to reflect the privilege [of care], as well as the challenges.”

Privilege and challenge are two words that recur throughout my conversation with McKevitt and Emma Jordan, who is directing the show. We are speaking via video chat, and they are in the Abbey’s rehearsal room, after a full run-through with the cast. Jordan, who is director of Belfast’s Prime Cut Productions, has been busy during Covid. So far in 2021, the company has premiered a new work, Father the Father by Gilly Campbell, as well as a digital version of their much-lauded play Removed. “But it has all been monologue by necessity,” Jordan explains, “and most of it has been done via Zoom. So, in terms of getting a group of people together in the room to work, [One Good Turn] feels like a massive step forward in the right direction and weirdly novel coming out of time where everything has been online.”

When Jordan took on the job, she “didn’t know whether it would be performed on a live stream or in front of a live audience. On a practical level,” she explains, “I probably legislated that it would be a mix of both. So I was directing [the actors] for a live audience, but framing it so that it would still be able to fit within the context of a filmed performance.” Jordan’s optimism paid off: the Abbey has just announced that they will host a limited live audience for One Good Turn alongside the live stream. It will be the first time the Abbey auditorium has hosted a live audience since last March.

A live audience

“It’s only 50 human beings,” Jordan says, as if reminding herself to stay grounded. “And they will be socially distant, sitting in disparate groups around the venue. But it is definitely something we are really excited about. People who love theatre have been yearning to get back to seeing it live, and there is something very attractive for people at home too, to know there are people in the audience watching it at the same time.” 

Jordan is especially excited about “how the actors” – and the play itself – “will respond to the audience”. McKevitt feels the same way. “When I started writing it,” she says, “I was definitely imagining it for a live audience. [With Covid regulations] there were certain rules that came into play – I had to rewrite certain lines about people passing props” – but that was the extent of the dramaturgical concessions that McKevitt had to make when the staging was confirmed. She was also comfortable from the outset with the idea of the play being filmed. “There’s a certain tele-play-ness that is a lucky coincidence, I suppose,” she admits. “1980s sitcoms were very much in my mind when I started writing but that wasn’t to do with Covid, but the sort of affectionate feel of those sorts of shows. That is the kind of atmosphere I was going for.”

The use of Zoom in the early stages of rehearsals, meanwhile, also suited the work, Jordan explains. She has directed a number of rehearsed readings on the video platform throughout the pandemic “and I really think in terms of work in development and new work, it gives you a critical distance from the live experience that works better in a dramaturgical sense”. McKevitt agrees, but for different reasons: “I will never forget the first time I heard the play being read aloud. I was sitting in my room on an aerobic step watching it! It was a relief not having to be introduced. I definitely felt less self-conscious, but it was also surreal, and I don’t think I heard the play properly until I saw the first run in the rehearsal room.”

During that first rehearsal of One Good Turn, McKevitt realised how significant a shift the play was for her as a writer, whose career so far has been dictated by the challenges of producing work within the independent theatre sector. “The thing about working independently in theatre,” she elaborates, “is that a lot of the time, the circumstances can be very challenging, and it is a hard thing to do when you have limited resources. So it is really strange for me to be in a situation now where there are people responsible for each and every job. I mean, I just had to write the play. I didn’t have to secure the funding, I don’t have to direct it, I amn’t producing it. I mean I had no idea stage managers came in teams! For the first time,” she concludes with a huge smile, “I am not responsible for everything and... yeah, I think I can say this model is... much more attractive.”

One Good Turn runs nightly at the Abbey Theatre from June 21–26, with a livestream on June 25 and 26. It will be available to watch on demand until July 10

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.