Malaprop Theatre was due to premiere a new play by Dylan Coburn Gray in March, just as the country went into lockdown. The play, Hothouse, was a climate-change comedy that complemented Malaprop’s impressive repertoire of socially engaged, stylistically challenging work.
The cancellation of the show, which had been written and made in an intense four-week period of rehearsal, was a blow of course. Still, Coburn Gray says it wasn’t as disruptive as might be expected because, when you are working in the arts, “you never really know whether you will have any income in two months’ time. So the sort of precarity that the pandemic is something already existing when you work in theatre. It is not something new. So, if you are standing on the edge of a cliff and there’s a sudden jolt, there is nowhere for you to go but down.”
Instead of falling, however, Malaprop – a collective that includes Coburn Gray, actor Breffni Holohan, designer Molly O'Cathain and director Claire O'Reilly – started to consider new ways of engaging with audiences. During lockdown, Coburn Gray had various writing commissions and teaching commitments to finish up, but as the country began to re-emerge from domestic isolation, he and his collaborators considered what conversations they would like to have with audiences if given the opportunity to come together again.
“We really wanted to do something live,” he says with passion. “It had to be live, because liveness is the thing we have been starved of.”
When the Dublin Fringe Festival approached them with the idea of creating a new work for the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle, Malaprop jumped at the chance. Ideas circulating in the company’s discussions began to crystallise, bringing together several strands relating to the current conditions of social or physical distancing, and the political hotbed of policing across the globe.
The site of the small chapel became the unifying force for Before You Say Anything, a work that would examine, as Coburn Gray puts it, “ideas of proximity and intimacy, how they are inextricable but not identical”. He calls the performance piece “a suite of variations on the idea of public nudity. We were interested in the idea of exposure as a proposition that cuts interestingly across proximity and intimacy. These are topics of real political importance at the moment.”
Before You Say Anything is a play in three parts. The first section unfolds in the late 19th century as a young man being persecuted for his sexuality takes refuge in the chapel of Dublin Castle. The second moves to 1980s London, where a young woman escaping personal abuse finds herself drawn into a more public, political controversy about prostitution. The final part takes place in contemporary Ireland, in the aftermath of a young woman's death following the release of naked images of her into the public domain.
Each section was influenced by historical events, Coburn Gray says. “It was interesting to see how preventative police measures that are used today can be traced back through different periods of time; how what we understand as given truths are actually contingent, a development of a set of strategies that lead us to the present moment.”
The problem is, respectability is a very moveable goal post and the potential for abuse is huge
His research drew him back as far as the early 1800s, when the colonial government in Ireland first began to write into law structures that would police bodily autonomy. It started with the Vagrancy Act of 1824, which “gave police a pretext to stop and search people who they saw as ‘undesirable’”. The Contagious Diseases Act of 1864 followed, targeting female prostitutes, “but basically the law was targeting people who are not ‘respectable’. The problem is, respectability is a very moveable goal post and the potential for abuse is huge.”
As his research deepened, Coburn Gray observed “a continuum that you can follow through to the present day, where what you see is a very distinct group of people being affected by these powers: black people, queer people, sex workers”. The historical context, he argues, is essential for understanding exactly how significant that targeting is.
“If you just look at the contemporary moment, you might think the [racially charged police brutality in the US] is exceptional, a single pathological instance, a cancer in an otherwise healthy body. But the thing about history is it shows us that the system is actually working as it is supposed to: the police can use excessive force against people and can get away with it.”
Before You Say Anything obliquely brings to mind those recent events in the US, as well cases of local interest, such as the circumstances leading up to the death in 1980 of journalist Dara Quigley. However, it also resonates with contemporary crises across the globe, and in Ireland, as governments struggle to police individual behaviour during the pandemic.
The physical focus of the play's theme prompted Malaprop to consider moving beyond textual representation for the first time too. As Claire O'Reilly, who directs the piece, says, "We decided early on to work with contemporary dance in a way we hadn't before." Collaborating with actor and choreographer Ghaliah Conroy, dance has become a key tool for storytelling within the piece.
Coburn Gray, whose father works in contemporary dance, says, “When you are dealing with big heavy subject matter, it is important to think very carefully about what perspective you portray that subject matter from, and we felt that it was important to explore other ways of expression beyond the text.” Particularly as the work is so embedded in the idea of bodily autonomy, “strategies like dance and music work to estrange or distance you from it in one way and let new things come into focus”.
The conditions for performing their new work, meanwhile, are also in dialogue with these issues, as the parameters for the possibility of live performance during these challenging Covid times keep changing.
Despite the limitations and uncertainty, the collective has in fact thrived on the restricted access to each other and the performance space, as O’Reilly elaborates: “Well, it is structured in three distinct parts, so it has been relatively easy for us to maintain separate schedules for rehearsal. But we also did a lot of preparatory work on Zoom, and actually the Zoom rehearsals allowed us to be much more flexible around rehearsals, allowing for quarantining, childcare and other jobs.
“Not to over-glorify the Zoom rehearsal,” she expands, “but it actually allowed us to be way more efficient, and it has also made a lot of the table work, which can feel really dense, to be much more diffuse and easier to get through.”
Coburn Gray agrees. “Time is an expensive luxury when you are making new work, and the accepted economic model when you work in the arts is that you cannot exclusively commit yourself, so Zoom has been a really great way of allowing us to fit conversations and rehearsals in around everybody’s other commitments.”
What they cannot anticipate is the unwieldy dimension that inviting a live audience into the Chapel Royal space will bring to their show, which hopes to start a conversation about “what the world would look like it we were to reform the police, is it reformable, would any adequate reform be so different it won’t be called policing?” Every audience member, O’Reilly concludes, “will bring their own perspective to it. Every audience member will have a different opinion.”
Indeed, each audience will experience the show a little bit differently in very concrete terms, as the natural light for the first daily performance fades and Suzie Cummins’s theatrical lighting for the 9pm performance kicks over. That, the pair agree with relish, is the beauty of the live event.
Before You Say Anything runs from September 5th-11th at the Chapel Royal, Dublin Castle, as part of Dublin Fringe Festival: Pilot Light Edition