Women don’t write national plays? ‘Well they can, and they do’
In 2018, a diversity of Irish women’s voices will take their place on the national stage
Deirdre Kinahan: “People ask ‘How do you feel about being on the main stage?’ I say bring it on.” Photograph: Shane Cowley
It is two years since the Abbey Theatre began its programme to commemorate the centenary of 1916, ushering in a new gender consciousness in Irish theatre spearheaded by Waking the Feminists.
The Abbey’s 2018 season reflects this new cultural climate. In a theatre that has historically struggled to represent women’s voices, the news that it will premiere seven new plays by Irish women this year seems not just noteworthy but miraculous.
On its major and minor stages, the Abbey will showcase the work of established names such as Deirdre Kinahan and Marina Carr, experimental collaborators such as Gina Moxley and Louise Lowe, and emerging voices such as Margaret Perry and Meadhbh McHugh. This year we will see a diversity of Irish women’s voices, past and present, taking their place on the national stage.
The season begins in earnest this month with the premiere of two new plays by Margaret Perry and Deirdre Kinahan.
Perry makes her professional debut at the Peacock Theatre with Porcelain, a drama that juxtaposes the murder of Bridget Cleary in 1895 with the postnatal plight of a young mother in present-day London.
Kinahan, meanwhile, gets an outing on the Abbey’s main stage with The Unmanageable Sisters, a version of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belle Soeurs and a further opportunity later in the year with the premiere of an original script, Rathmines Road, at the Peacock.
Although Perry and Kinahan are at different ends of the spectrum when it comes to experience – Porcelain is Perry’s first full-length play, Kinahan’s oeuvre stretches to nearly 30 – the two writers are equally as astonished to have their work embraced by the Abbey.
Kinahan is one of the many contemporary female writers whose work has previously been overlooked by the National Theatre. Although she served as a board member for three years, her work was never staged by the Abbey.
When Neil Murray and Graham McLaren were appointed as new directors of the theatre in 2016, however, she was approached by McLaren to write a new version of Tremblay’s famous feminist play.
“Graham had staged a magnificent adaptation at the National Theatre in Scotland,” Kinahan explains, “so it was something that was very close to his own heart. I didn’t know the play at all, but when I read it I saw immediately how resonant it was with Irish culture.
“It is this incredible lamentation for the plight of women in a Catholic society, where they had little access to education, where they had no financial independence, where they were stuck in this delineated role as mothers and virgins. And even though the play is a comedy, there is a great rage and fury that comes from their frustration.
“The correlation with Irish life was startling, so I thought, ‘yeah. I have to do this.’ The fact that it would be on the main stage of the National Theatre was a bonus.”
Perry’s journey to the Abbey was similarly unexpected. Porcelain was pulled from the slush pile after a mentor in London – where she’s been based for the past three years – sent it to the theatre on her behalf; Perry didn’t even have the confidence to get that far.
“The Abbey was always this place that intimidated me”, the 27-year-old says. “I thought ‘no. They wouldn’t be interested in what I have to say. The play couldn’t possibly be good enough. Maybe after another few drafts’.”
When the theatre got in touch to commend the script, Perry assumed that would be the end of it. “Normally a theatre will read your play, say they like it, and if you are lucky, perhaps commission you to write something else.”
However, the Abbey got back in touch, inviting her to a reading, and three weeks later informed her they wanted to give Porcelain a full production and a four-week run. “It is a massive break,” she admits. “It is mad to think that I left Ireland because I couldn’t get on to a playwriting scheme, and for my first big opportunity I am coming back to Dublin.”
Porcelain twins together two narratives of women and madness. In the first, Perry draws on the story of Bridget Cleary, who was accused of witchcraft by the community she lived in and was subsequently killed.
“I was fascinated by the fact that she was this modern woman, living in a time that just could not accommodate that. She was financially independent. She had the first sewing machine. She was famously beautiful and would go out walking alone. I think there was a sense that her husband was jealous of this rich interior life she had, and that was compounded by the social pressure to have a conventional marriage. She was so modern and so herself, and in 1895 people could not handle that, so they has to use stories about fairies and changelings to explain it.” The modern narrative explores similar themes in a more familiar setting.
Perry wasn’t particularly thinking about gender when she was writing the play. “I just like to write women,” she says. “There are enough plays about men.” Nor does Perry consider her own gender when writing: “I would like to think my work is being taken on its own merit.”
However, she’s conscious she is the beneficiary of a change in how women are being represented on the stage, and of having a greater opportunity than previous generations. “Lucky” is a word she uses many times in our conversation.
“I sometimes think people are going to say: ‘Hang on, we’ve been working here for years, doing the hard graft, putting plays on in the Fringe. Who’s this young one? She doesn’t even live here!’”
Energy for change
Kinahan, however, has no such gripe with Perry’s good fortune. She just marvels at the transformation in the theatrical establishment that has taken place over the last two years.
“It’s astonishing how quickly things can change when the energy is there to make it happen,” she marvels. “All the old arguments that people roll out when you talk about the lack of opportunity for women playwrights in Ireland: ‘Oh women don’t write national plays. Women just don’t write quickly enough.’ Well they can, and they do.”
“One of the major points that Waking the Feminists tried to make,” she says in conclusion, “was that women are here – writing, working – but they are being wilfully ignored, and the new season features so many writers who have been working away, producing plays, for 15 plus years.
“Even my story: I’ve been working in theatre for more than 20 years and, finally, I have a play on in the Abbey. It’s ridiculous, but I shouldn’t be intimidated. ‘How do you feel about being on the main stage?’ people are asking.
“I say bring it on.”
Porcelain is at the Peacock Theatre until March 10th. The Unmanageable Sisters runs at the Abbey Theatre from February 26th – April 7th