Deirdre Kinahan: ‘I had about six plays opening. Then I got fecking cancer’

The Saviour, about warped Irish religiosity, is live-streaming during Cork Midsummer

Marie Mullen in Landmark Productions’ The Saviour. Photograph: Patrick Redmond

Marie Mullen in Landmark Productions’ The Saviour. Photograph: Patrick Redmond

 

“I actually wrote some of it in St Luke’s when I was getting radiation,” says Deirdre Kinahan. “Chemotherapy nearly killed me altogether, but radiation didn’t knock a whiff out of me. So I was up in Terenure, delighted with myself altogether, beautiful coffee shops and everything. I used to get my treatment in the morning and write in the afternoon. I’ve loads of good friends in Dublin and I’d go over to my friends in the evening. That three weeks was a doddle.”

It was a disaster, however, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018, during the run of her play Rathmines Road in the Dublin Theatre Festival: “2018 was an amazing year for me, I had about six plays opening, all over the world, London, Ireland. And I was 50. And then I got fecking cancer.” She had been writing The Saviour for Landmark Productions; Anne Clarke planned to stage it in 2020. First cancer. Then Covid.

Now, says Kinahan, she’s back with various plays in the works, including In the Middle of the Fields, “a piece for Meath Co Council, which has been turned into a theatre performance that’s just opened in Washington DC. And The Saviour.”

Playwright Deirdre Kinahan
Playwright Deirdre Kinahan

It was a late decision to stage The Saviour for Cork Midsummer Festival. “You’re turning on a tuppence with this Covid the whole time, with regulations and rules changing. People have been incredibly inventive and determined.”

The two-hander, with Marie Mullen and Brian Gleeson, directed by Louise Lowe, will stream three performances during the festival, live from the stage of the Everyman.

It is set against social, political and religious shifts in Ireland over the past 30 years, but it does so by focusing on one domestic situation, and one woman, Máire. It’s all in there: responsibility, trauma, forgiveness, faith, the weight of history, religion, God, laundries, emigration, family relationships, piety, deception, homosexuality, changing attitudes, secrets.

While the storyline involves revelations both heartbreaking and morally challenging, it doesn’t start like this. It starts joyously, revelling in a mature woman’s sexual pleasure. The note is cryptic: “On the morning of her 67th birthday, Máire sits up in bed enjoying a cigarette. There is a man downstairs. She is blooming.” This is a sort of giant cheer “for all the Máires!”, the three women in the rehearsal room – actor Marie Mullen, director Louise Lowe and stage manager Leanna Cuttle – agree.

Mullen, peeking through the glass in the door, is perched in an ornate brass bed. It looks a bit Bailegangaire, and indeed Mullen jokes: they think, old woman in bed? We’ll cast Mullen!

They’re rehearsing The Saviour in a beautiful airy room at the top of DanceHouse on Foley Street, Dublin. Their safety rules are strict on numbers in the space: I can only visit when Gleeson, who plays Máire’s son Mel, isn’t there; Kinahan sometimes joins on Zoom. A large sliding door is open to an outdoor terrace, and a gentle breeze billows the curtains, ventilating the room. A camera on tripod faces the bed. Lowe eyes the monitor as she directs.

Postcoital bliss

They’re rehearsing an early section. Máire is luxuriating in postcoital bliss, nonetheless wondering “So am I gone to the dogs altogether at the end? Or is this right? I wonder will you tell me, Jesus?” Later, out of bed, there’s discussion of Mullen’s beautiful hair, how she handles the hairbrush. Máire is a devout woman – it transpires she was in Stanhope Street Magdalene laundry as a teenager.

Louise Lowe
Louise Lowe

Cuttle signals the regulated indoor time limit is up, and we take a break outside on the terrace. I’ve walked into what Lowe calls their cuddle-bubble, the tightknit rehearsal of an intense play. That alone is a thrill these days. Lowe: “How lucky am I? A, we’re rehearsing, B, I’m rehearsing with amazing people. Yesterday they did such an extraordinary thing, I couldn’t speak. I was sucker-punched.”

Mullen: “The support in the room. This one [Lowe] has layers of understanding she can impart to you in a generous way.”

They talk about layers – in the script, in the performances, in the rehearsal process. Lowe describes Mullen as “almost like watching someone having this physical palimpsest of themselves. You see the lost girl, and the woman grappling with her sexuality, and then you see the hope and the faith and the divine.”

Mullen: “It’s a tortuous piece, it’s very exposing.”

Lowe: “It catches you. You think you’re laughing along, and then it’s gone with a line. Oh.”

Mullen: “The audience will be thinking, did she actually say that?”

During rehearsal Lowe walks around, planning camera angles on a tablet. The theatre-maker has made acclaimed site-specific work exploring this north city area (including Laundry, in the Gloucester Street Magdalene) . In 2018 Lowe did a multi-camera TV director training course with RTÉ, and that experience has also been useful in making theatre for streaming, bringing the camera eye to her directorial vision from the beginning, rather than “the funnel of someone else looking at it”.

Mullen says: “She’s taking it out of the rehearsal room and on to the stage, and only we’re involved. She’s working it out with us, and she’s working out cameras at the same time.”

Lowe loved streamed theatre over lockdown, with global audiences sharing the energy of the live. “We were playing with digital media anyway [before Covid]. I don’t think we’ve quite cracked it yet as an industry, the hybrid of theatre and screen, but there’s something really exciting.”

By the end of rehearsals she’ll have written a three-camera script, planning the shots, and will sit with a vision mixer, calling it live during performance. “Because it will be live, and not cheating.” Meaning, some recorded performances are presented as if they’re livestreams? “Ah, there’s been lots of cheating for livestreams!” she laughs.

Live shocks

The liveness is part of how the story and its shocks evolve. “That hour and six minutes is real time,” says Lowe. “As it’s being uncovered or unpicked, we are on that with you, but we can’t push ourselves forward or backwards. When she’s opening that [gift in the script] it’s like a Pandora’s box, what she’s going to uncover, about herself, and this tsunami.”

Máire’s character is both strong and vulnerable, they agree. Her blossoming will resonate with mature women. “You really want it for her – do it for all the Máires.”

Mullen says, “When I was about 59 or 60, that’s when I noticed I was a bit invisible. Maybe when my hair went pure white or something. Things had shifted. And they shouldn’t. Because I feel like a 16-year-old in my head. Yet the world does shift you a bit.

“I remember thinking at one stage that my knees would give up the ghost. But they held up.” She rubs her knees.

There’s great humour in the script. And yet, says Lowe, “not to make her bawdy funny. It’s not Shirley Valentine-y.”

Kinahan says The Saviour “was kind of floating in my head for a while, hugely influenced by the trauma this country has been negotiating, in the last 20 years. It looks like we’re finally facing the Caliphate under which we all lived since the formation of the State. All that reflection and examination of our revolution and the deep betrayal of the ideals, and how the Catholic Church kind of took a hold and governed us for nigh on a century. There’s collateral damage in that – men and women brutalised, raped, abandoned, cast out. It feels like it’s coming to a head, with all the tribunals and reports, the exposure. We’re grappling with it as a nation. There’s something about this story of a deeply devout woman who befriends this man that allows you to unlock the trauma of that.”

She talks about “a kind of Orwellian twist”, with those “who had all the power now presenting themselves as victims. I think progress is fragile. The extraordinary joy of the marriage referendum, Repeal the Eighth, it’s so fragile. Eirexit and the right and the church and the Gemma O’Dohertys, they’re sitting in the long grass. They’d drag us back to the darkness in a moment. All those things were fermenting in my head.”

Coping mechanism

To get at the bigger picture, it’s “big themes in small rooms, a bit like Patrick Kavanagh’s Epic. These kinds of catastrophes manifest themselves in bodies and relationships and families and societies, and affect us all. Like Máire or loathe her, she’s of us. We’ve all come from this history. You can show that in how it’s affecting Mel, his siblings, possibly damaging the next generation too.”

Traumatised as a child, Máire’s coping mechanism, of Jesus talking back to her, saved her for years, Lowe observed, but is “the thing that will destroy her real relationship”. For her to permit herself freedom, Kinahan says, she has to see it as part of Jesus’s plan. “Because that’s how tightly controlled women like her were, and are.”

“It’s all brush strokes. The whole play is really just one encounter, one morning, but it can speak to so much, and you can sew these things into the fabric of a person’s life. That tenderness between herself and Mel. But then she misfires.”

Máire embodies forgiveness but also delusion and denial. “I think we all do in a way, we all have a very complicated relationship now with religion, and spirituality, with God, with our past. Because it was banged out in our courts and in our Constitution. And coming out of the idealism and the internationalism, the feminism and the socialism, the labour movement, that were all the impetus behind our revolution. How did those ideals die? And how did the church get such a grip that we all kind of turned on ourselves, and we hurt ourselves more perhaps than the British ever did.”

Landmark Productions’ The Saviour, a new play by Deirdre Kinahan, will be livestreamed from the stage of the Everyman Theatre as part of Cork Midsummer Festival, for three performances June 19th-20th, with on-demand watch-back afterwards, June 21st-27th. corkmidsummer.com

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