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Dublin Theatre Festival: ‘How many times do you think your heart can break?’: The Loved Ones review

Erica Murray’s new play drops into the lives of four women connected by unexpected circumstances

There isn’t a matinee today, so the Gate Theatre is quiet at lunchtime. As the street door closes behind me, I hear a low murmur of voices from the box office, the fading click of unseen footsteps. Silence in an empty theatre has a distinct quality, a fragmentary hush, as if the entire building is softly inhaling before the long, shared exhalation that is a performance.

I’m here to meet the writer Erica Murray and the director Ronan Phelan, of Rough Magic theatre company, who are rehearsing Murray’s new play, The Loved Ones, before its world premiere at this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival. The Loved Ones drops into the lives of four women connected by unexpected circumstances. It opens with Nell (played by Jane Brennan), a grieving mother who lives in a farmhouse in the wilds of west Clare, getting ready to scatter her son’s ashes with her daughter-in-law Orla (Grainne Keenan). Nell regularly takes Airbnb guests, but not long after an American tourist, Cheryl-Ann (Helen Norton), arrives on a birdwatching holiday, an uninvited visitor called Gabby (Fanta Barrie) shows up, upending Nell’s plans.

What at first glance appears to be a story about grief, and the repercussions of sudden bereavement in women of different ages and situations, reveals itself to be something else entirely. “Grief is the context for the play,” Phelan says; the story is that of “these very eccentric, idiosyncratic individuals fighting their way back into life”. (In a script crowded with great lines, Orla asks Nell a question that shoots straight to the play’s DNA: “How many times do you think your heart can break?”) “It’s hopeful ultimately to see these women go through that, and come out the other side,” Murray says. She was interested in writing about characters who keep going despite being broken-hearted, or knowing that they will be. The Loved Ones explores fertility, “and everyone’s different relationships to that, and how it affects their life as a woman”.

Murray always begins with character. “I have characters in my head that I just start leaning towards, or gravitating to write. They’re usually the ones that create drama when they’re put together, because they’re different. This play is based on a lot of women in my life, an amalgamation of different people.” She wants to create what she enjoys experiencing in novels and plays: authentic characters who stay with you long after you close the book or the curtain falls. Moving fluidly between light and shade, Murray’s script has some very funny moments, which was important both to her and to Phelan.


“Comedy can be undervalued or undersold when one is talking about art,” he says. “There’s an inherent hope in comedy. There’s a recognition and a generosity in the act itself which is humane, and I think that’s really important ... It’s one of the reasons I’m so drawn to Erica’s work, even though the themes are often really big, and we’ve had to do an awful lot of thinking and talking about grief, and fertility, and the weight of how damaging these events can be in people’s lives. But, through that, the characters find a way to joke and look for life.”

These lighter moments are rewarding for the actors as well as the audience — what he terms “the motor of the play” gets energy from laughter. “With theatre, you’re always getting a fresh take; that’s the beauty of it,” Murray says. “That’s why I write theatre: it’s different, it’s always changing ... that electricity, that bit of magic, that experience.”

The Loved Ones is also, in a way, about ornithology. “I started birdwatching in lockdown,” Murray says. The work of the poet Mary Oliver, whose work suggests the consolation and redemption to be found in everyday life and nature, was a huge inspiration. (Reading the script of The Loved Ones made me think of a line in Oliver’s Wild Geese: “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”) To Murray, birds are a metaphor for hope; “they just seem to be magical creatures”.

She began writing as the pandemic hit, in spring 2020, and “kind of tipped away” until early the following year, when she sent a completed draft to Rough Magic. She isn’t the sort of writer who will pitch a synopsis; if she hasn’t fully inhabited the characters and story herself – “I have to write it privately, and figure out if it is a thing first” – she doesn’t expect anyone else to.

In addition to being Rough Magic’s associate director, Phelan is artist development curator of Seeds, the company’s long-standing mentoring programme for emerging artists. He had directed Murray’s second play, All Mod Cons, at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, in 2019, so they already had a working relationship. When he read her script he was confident about “the depth of thought and amount of consideration everything had been given”.

It must be tricky, all the same, I suggest, to respond to a text the writer has lived so intensely for a year. Phelan nods. “You have to be respectful,” he says. “It was already a complete world. The characters were very clearly delineated, and the subject matter was established. It was a case of trying to get a sense of what Erica wanted to do with the play, and hoping I could help.”

Murray says Phelan has “a laser-eye vision when something’s not right. We can be very honest with each other. I know that he really believes in my work, so that makes it a lot easier when he’s being honest.” She knows that once the script becomes a shared enterprise — a production — there is a necessary handing over of agency and responsibility, and while it’s “very thrilling and exciting and overwhelming to have something so private expanded into being”, and she loves the collaboration, the flip side is that the text is no longer hers to control. “Actors and creative people have their own vision, and you have to let them come up with it.” She quotes her friend Nancy Harris, whose play Somewhere Out There You premieres at the Abbey Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival, advising her, “You can’t just sit there watching people learn it!”

Phelan and Murray have an ease in each other’s company, a gentle warmth that isn’t always present in creative relationships. She refers to them at one stage as like brother and sister; he jokes that this interview is couples’ therapy. “I can’t imagine working with anyone else, but I’m sure we will have to,” Murray says, to which Phelan responds, “You’d need to churn out three plays a year to keep me in business!”

Next up, they’d love to produce her play The Magnificent, which she and Phelan worked on together thanks to an Arts Council grant. The script won the Sonia Friedman Productions Award last year. Citing the recent success of Fun Home, the musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Phelan also pays tribute to “the new administration at the Gate. To put a new play on in the Dublin Theatre Festival by an early-career playwright is a really big thing. It feels really fresh. You can feel the Gate opening itself up to new voices, to new types of plays. There’s a vibrancy and a dynamism which we’re happy to be part of.”

They lead me back on to the street and into the rehearsal room next door. This space mirrors the size of the stage, “with a bit extra”, Phelan explains. It is high-ceilinged and airy, its walls lined with thin wooden slats. On one side, huge windows frame the street and trees outside. Inside, in a world of another sort, the remote farmhouse set of The Loved Ones is coming to life. During my visit, they are working on the physical shape of a scene between Nell and Gabby. It’s fascinating to see how even a subtle shift in Jane Brennan’s delivery of a line affects not just the tone of Fanta Barrie’s response but also how she moves while speaking. This room is where they experiment, Phelan says. “And try, and fail, and fail again, and try more. And then realise something, and feel emboldened. And then it slips through our fingers ... until, eventually, we catch it again.”