An Irish Catholic Fleabag? This one-woman show is darker and more disturbing

Sarah Hanly’s debut play is a troubling look at a skewed psychology thrust upon women

Sarah Hanly

Sarah Hanly

 

At the beginning of Sarah Hanly’s debut play, the provocatively titled Purple Snowflakes and Titty Wanks, the protagonist, Saoirse, takes to the stage for a school production of the Greek tragedy, Antigone. Saoirse has been cast in the role of Creon, and as she takes to the stage, she fits a pair of fake balls between her legs. “I’m taking this really seriously,” Saoirse tells the audience directly. “[There’s] something empowering about this. I don’t know what but I like using the bellow and taking up this much space … I am commanding the stage here. And I never want to come out of this role. It’s like a drug. What that might be like – To hold the gaze of a male and be the last to look away.”

Hanly’s one-woman show is shaped as a dialogue between two young women on the cusp of adulthood: Aisling, the dream version of a woman, perhaps, and Saoirse, who takes the freedom implied by her name literally, fleeing the repressed, conservative sexual mores of Ireland for London. There she hopes to make a career for herself on the stage, playing “real women”. What she is confronted with in casting rooms, however, are dozens of stereotypes: “An underfed sex bomb going mad. Needs a shag. Victim eyes. Naughty gal. Perfection.” 

Hanly, who moved to England as a young woman with the same ambitions as Saoirse, says: “When I was younger, my perception of what a ‘real woman’ was was very skewed because of the world we live in, and [I was very aware of] the pressure we put on women to perform certain roles in the world. I was very angry about that, and for a long time I couldn’t quite name why I was so angry. Then I went off to England and slowly I started to figure that out.”

The premiere of Purple Snowflakes and Titty Wanks this week at the Abbey Theatre marks the culmination of many years of work. Hanly first started writing the play as a thesis project for a master’s in acting at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London. She had entered the programme after graduating from an intensive three-year musical theatre course, and, although she loved the challenge of dancing and singing, by the time she finished she had realised “acting was really what I wanted to do”. Writing the monologue that would become her first play helped to clarify that ambition, but it also kick-started a writing career. 

“I want to make a piece about the pressures on women within an extremely patriarchal society and culture,” Hanly explains over video chat from the bright kitchen of her London flat. “How women are forced to create themselves within that structure, and how women can empower each other and hold each other’s hands as they try to shake that off.” For her thesis, Hanly was looking at feminist theatre practice, and how “giving the woman the agency in the storytelling, allowing her to stand on stage telling stories that are obviously creations of a world that encapsulates an imbalance of power: that that in itself is an affirmative action, an empowering thing.” 

Saoirse’s body

Hanly had been preoccupied with these pressures since she was a teenager herself, growing up in the same-sex Catholic schooling tradition of Ireland, “where we were never told anything about our bodies, where [women in art and the real world] were being told what they should be”. Hanly saw this affecting both the possibilities young women imagined for themselves, as well as the way in which they present themselves in public.

“We live in a world where everything is filtered,” she says. “It’s all Botox and plastic surgery. I was interested in what that does to our self-image, to our understanding of who we are.”

In Purple Snowflakes, we see this played out on Saoirse’s body through self-harm and disordered eating, which only gets worse when she tries to take control of her own destiny in England. From the opening lines the play is sexually explicit and thematically challenging, and it would be easy to draw comparison with Phoebe Waller-Bridges’ one-woman play Fleabag. However, Hanly’s work is a much darker, more troubling presentation of the skewed psychology of young women growing up in a culture focused on superficial measures of self-worth without an understanding of their own sexuality. 

When Hanly performed the first version of Purple Snowflakes for her classmates and teachers, she thought: “I have found my calling. Really. I thought, I just want to perform this show for the rest of my life. I got an acting agent, but I just wanted to do my show.”

She performed an earlier, shorter version of the play in a variety of Fringe contexts, and “I loved it. Being on stage, [but also] the marketing side of it, the promoting side of it. I got such a buzz out of that side of things.” Hanly also got a literary agent and was introduced to Vikki Featherstone, director of the Royal Court Theatre, who invited her to join their young writers’ group. She started working on another play, Whistleblower, which won a Pinter Award, and is due to be produced at the Royal Court in the future. 

Female guidance

In the meantime, the script for Purple Snowflakes continued to develop. It was originally programmed to open last year in a co-production with the Royal Court, and finally reaches full production under the direction of Alice Fitzgerald at the Peacock Theatre this month.

“The fact that we have been waiting for so long for it [to reach full production] makes it more special,” says Hanly, “but it is also what that space has allowed me to do [with the play]. It allowed me to go off and do other things, to create other work and come back to it as an artist. We grow and change so much in our 20s, and now I really feel that I am stepping into the play in an even more empowered place. The character has complete agency in the storytelling, which is really important. It began as a monologue, but now it is a fully realised, fleshed-out play. Although it’s just me on stage – ah! It’s just me on stage! – it’s grown into its own and there’s a lot more to it, I think, than a one-woman show.”

Hanly credits other women in the creative industries with enabling her to transform herself and her work over the years. “It is so important to have women, like Vikki at the Royal Court, in positions of power in theatres, because that brings a different dynamic when a story like this is being brought to the table. Having women around to initiate other women into their roles is very important, and I do feel that I now have a role to put the lámh out to women coming behind me, to others wanting to tell their stories too.” 

With this in mind, Hanly has established her own production company, Dochas, to provide a platform for women whose experiences, whose voices, don’t get heard in the mainstream. “I am passionate about creating work for women, and a space for women and their stories to be told. It is important,” she concludes, “that we hold each other’s hands, that we keep passing the baton of light.”  

Purple Snowflakes and Titty Wanks runs at the Abbey Theatre on the Peacock Stage, September 30th-October 16th, and at the Royal Court Theatre, London, February 1st-12th, 2022

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