The Last Return set to explore the tension of queuing at Galway Arts Festival

Director Sara Joyce and writer Sonya Kelly bring ‘an enormously triggering scenario’ to the stage

The first meeting between director Sara Joyce and writer Sonya Kelly did not begin auspiciously. Joyce remembers: “Sonya had written me off because she thought I was late.” Kelly interjects: “I was literally texting the production manager at Druid, saying ‘she’s not here yet…’” “But I wasn’t late,” Joyce continues, “I was in the cafe and she was in the foyer. I had actually been there for half an hour already.” When they finally found each other, the day turned around. “Sara had brought this giant file with her,” Kelly recalls, “a whole mood board with her response to [my play], with images and a breakdown of scenes. It was very impressive. I thought ‘oh, here’s someone who is as prepared as I am’. I thought if every director presented a writer with a dossier like that, theatre would be in a very healthy place.”

That meeting took place in early 2020 and was orchestrated by Druid Theatre Company, who had commissioned Kelly’s play The Last Return and were starting to think about producing it later that year. When the pandemic struck, the production was shelved. “We couldn’t have done it online,” Joyce says. “It is the most play-like play ever. It totally needs an audience.” However, the women got to work on Once Upon a Bridge, which Kelly wrote specifically for live-streaming from the Mick Lally Theatre in Galway. During that period, the pair realised they shared “similar values and tastes,” and “a rigorous approach to preparation”, as Kelly describes it. “We both understand that there is benefit to having certain things signed off early, that it means you can be match-fit before you get into the rehearsal room.”

Now they are finally in the rehearsal room with The Last Return and the delay in production, as Joyce sees it, was actually “a gift”. They “already have a working relationship, a kind of shorthand that is so invaluable when you are moving a play from the page to the floor”.

The Last Return is about a group of people in a theatre foyer queuing for return tickets for a sold-out show. As the queue gets longer, the group grows more desperate, cultivating relationships of convenience, discarding loyalties for the sake of their own gain. The idea for the play came from a personal experience Kelly had queuing for a return ticket to see Richard III at Die Schaubühne in Berlin on New Year’s Day 2019. “I knew it was sold out,” she remembers, “but I thought ‘if I just queue I will definitely get a ticket’. When you work in theatre, you have an inside eye: you know there are always a few house seats, or that if it’s bad weather people might not come. I had done it loads of times and never not gotten in.”

When Kelly approached the box office to put her name on the returns list she was told to wait in the foyer. There seemed to be no system, and the aspirational audience members were left to organise themselves. Without further instruction, Kelly observed “chaos and mayhem descend over the next 3 hours, [as] rogue queues started elsewhere and people started to trick each other to get ahead.” At the time, Kelly saw it as a “systems failure. The box office is a system, an authority. If I have a ticket that says I am number 3 [in the queue], that is my document to fend off anyone.” When the audience “are left to organise [the returns system] themselves, it is so much easier to be corrupted. That can easily trigger madness and [bad] behaviours. When a system breaks down, it leads to mayhem: people can behave in a way that’s magnanimous or in a way that is totally selfish.”

In hindsight, the writer came to understand the experience at Die Schaubühne as something more significant than the experience of those who got to see the show, that “more than a mere ticket was at stake” in the situation. “It was about the protection of territory,” Kelly explains. “I saw how that could extend to the protection of national territory. [How] someone trying to push me out of my place could be someone pushing people out of their home. We’ve all seen it: the people getting into fistfights over TVs, the pictures of Heathrow airport and people are pushing each other ... No one is queuing for that plane to escape persecution, no one is queuing for their lives, but the action is the same.”

Kelly started to toy with the connection between these ideas on paper. “I was interested in what we do as human beings to get what we want when we know we will never see those people again, and how that shapes our morality.” Although the seeds were sowed by her personal experience, Kelly was especially piqued by the “experience of collective recognition” that a story about queues would offer. “Everyone has a story about something that happened in a queue — the time they were skipped or jostled — it’s an enormously triggering scenario for people. What would you do, what have you done, to get ahead of a person?” She showed a couple of scenes to Druid’s artistic director Garry Hynes, asking her “do you think I have play here?” Hynes commissioned Kelly to complete what would become The Last Return.

When Joyce was brought on board to direct the play in early 2020, the dossier she brought with her documented her first response to the play. “It was my first time pitching for a show,” she remembers, “and I wanted to show Sonya what it was that I had responded to.” She says now that she loved the humour, the dramatic conceit and “the simplicity of the story”. Essentially, the stage action consists of a group of people waiting for something and what happens as they do; there’s another famous play with a similar narrative charge: Waiting for Godot. “The simplicity is the joy and the challenge,” the director says. “How to get the audience involved: I know it is a cliché, but the audience really is another character in this play.”

Joyce also saw a deeper question underneath the narrative action: “why do we queue in the first place? There’s a queue, so I will just stand behind you ... We can be so obedient [in one way] and then so vicious when push comes to shove. So there’s this pendulum swing between obedience and entitlement. And there’s no real villain: everyone is queuing for their own reason. Everyone is just trying to get by.”

The Last Return is very funny too, she says, “full of what I call Sonya Kelly-isms, and it is important that something so weighted has that humour in it too. It makes whatever serious message there might be much easier to take.”

Did Kelly ever get to see Richard III? It would spoil the story to reveal the real-life ending. In fact, the best way to satisfy your curiosity would be to see The Last Return, if you can get a ticket that is. Quite fittingly, the Druid Theatre production is almost sold out, so those who haven’t yet secured seats would be advised to hurry to get themselves a good spot on the returns list.

“Yes, queuing for a return ticket for a play about the people queuing for a return ticket,” Kelly says, “there is something delicious about that.” Indeed, Joyce might call it a perfect Sonya Kelly-ism.

The Last Return runs at the Mick Lally Theatre from July 8th-23rd as part of Galway International Arts Festival, and at The Traverse Theatre as part of Edinburgh International Arts Festival from August 4th-28th

Sara Keating

Sara Keating

Sara Keating, a contributor to The Irish Times, is an arts and features writer