On Wednesday 28th October 2015, the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s national theatre, launched its programme to mark the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Waking the Nation featured ten plays, a mix of newly commissioned work and well-known theatre classics. However, they failed to notice that out of the ten plays programmed in the 2016 programme, only one was written by a woman and only three were being directed by a woman.
Others noticed though, mainly freelance set designer and arts administrator Lian Bell who initiated a discussion on Facebook and Twitter under the hashtag #WakingtheFeminists, coined by director Maeve Stone. In the following weeks, there was an outpouring of testimonies from both women and men working in Irish theatre, highlighting the under-representation of the work of women artists – not just at the Abbey but throughout the Irish theatre sector. Word soon spread and even stars like Meryl Streep got behind the cause.
An unprecedented public meeting was held at The Abbey Theatre in November, gathering together the organisers of the movement and female theatre practitioners from across the country. The Abbey soon made public their oversight and issued a public statement to develop and administer a policy on gender equality and to programme more work by women in the future.
Other venues and organisations have also taken a look at their programming history and representatives from #Waking the Feminists have met with the Gate Theatre, Druid Theatre Company, Rough Magic Theatre Company and the Dublin Theatre Festival, as well as working with the Arts Council of Ireland to ensure parity and equality at a policy level to ensure a long lasting effect.
Ireland has produced some amazing female playwrights. Eva Gore-Booth was a suffragist and sister of Countess Markievicz and friend of WB Yeats. Frances Sheridan, mother of playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan had her work produced by David Garrick at London’s Drury Lane in 1700s.
Notable Irish authors have written for the stage, including Jennifer Johnston, Paula Meehan, Eílís Ní Dhuibhne and Emma Donoghue. Many female Irish playwrights are seeing their work produced regularly on the London stage, including Stella Feehily and Ursula Rani Sarma. Northern Irish playwright Abbie Spallen has spoken in the past about her frustration with how women are represented in Irish theatre yet has seen her work produced by the Bush Theatre in London.
Hopefully this will be the start of a change and we will see the work of more female playwrights being produced at home, writers like Rosemary Jenkinson whose new play Here Comes the Night will premiere next month at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast and Ali White, whose play Me, Mollser was the only play written by a woman to be included in the Abbey’s Waking the Nation programme,
You can find out more about #WakingtheFeminists at their fantastic site here or follow the hashtag on Twitter.
With this in mind, I decided to have a look at three plays by Irish female writers, two of which have been languishing in the 746 for a while!
No 634: B For Baby by Carmel Winters
Winner of the Irish Times Best New Play in 2010, Carmel Winters play is set in a residential care home. B, one of the residents, dreams of being a hairdresser and hopes for real scissors for Christmas. His friend D would love a ‘big head of dirty auld curls’ and a snow globe. Mrs. C, their carer just wants a baby with her husband Brian and this tender, funny play explores the extent to which these characters will go to get what they want. Two actors play four parts, adding to a sense of make-believe and play-acting that makes the audience and reader question what is real and what is made up and the play poignantly and subtly explores issues of sexuality, consent and disability in a thought-provoking way.
Read on: Book, Number Read: 113, Number Remaining: 633
No 633: After Easter by Anne Devlin
In Anne Devlin’s After Easter, Greta, an ex-Catholic from Northern Ireland now living in London, has reluctantly started to have religious visions. When her father suffers a heart attack, she is called back to Northern Ireland to be with her mother, a maker of children’s communion dresses and her sisters and brother, the only one of the siblings to have remained at home. Devlin touches on a variety of themes in this funny and sharp-witted play, including notions of exile and faith and while the Troubles feature in the form of a friendly police officer and her brother’s almost arrest over a parcel containing communion veils, the play is ultimately about making peace with your past, both personally and collectively.
Read on: Book, Number Read: 114, Number Remaining: 632
This May Hurt A Bit by Stella Feehily
Stella Feehily wrote This May Hurt A Bit after her husband, the director Max Stafford- Clark suffered a stroke and was treated by the NHS. The play is a vivid and hilarious polemic in favour of the NHS and a passionate defense of a public health service fighting against privatization. The play follows one family’s experience of the UK’s health service. Nicholas has been diagnosed with prostate problems and fights with his sister who is now living in America and is a convert to the idea of insurance led health care.
When their mother Iris is taken ill and moved to a geriatric ward, their theories are put to the test. What Feehily uncovers is an organization full of people working tirelessly for their patients, but bogged down in an administrative quagmire.
Before you think this play is a dry polemic, it’s not. It is filled with humour and scenes involving bumbling prime ministers, the NHS itself appearing on a stretcher and Winston Churchill and Aneurin Beven arguing in the stalls make this a passionate and appealing call to arms.