Last Wednesday night I attended the opening night of Elaine Murphy’s Shush at the Abbey.
There’s something very exciting about seeing new writing on the Abbey’s main stage, especially from a young dramatist who’s not very well known yet. Most of the Abbey’s recent main stage premieres of new writing have been by established Irish writers, and many of them have been adaptations – productions such as McGuinness’s The Dead and John Gabriel Borkman, Tom Murphy’s Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant, Roddy Doyle’s Government Inspector, and the ill-fated Adigun/Doyle Playboy of the Western World. There are exceptions, of course: Bernard Farrell’s new play Bookworms has appeared twice, and most recently Richard Dormer’s Drum Belly caused a bit of a stir at the theatre.
All that said, it’s very unusual – and perhaps unprecedented in the contemporary period – for us to see a writer’s second play debuting on the Abbey’s main stage.
Elaine Murphy’s first play was Little Gem, which was co-produced by Guna Nua and the Civic Theatre back in 2008. That play proved a (somewhat unlikely) commercial success, transferring to the Olympia and later to Peacock stage of the Abbey itself; it also toured nationally. I describe the success as unlikely because it was a monologue play by a then unknown author, but audiences actually responded very positively to Murphy’s presentation of different generations of women – and to the quality of her language and her humour. Those traits appear again in Shush, though this time we move from monologue to dialogue, in a play about five women who gather in a suburban house to celebrate a birthday.
I’d imagine that Shush could match and potentially even exceed the success of Little Gem. But what I found most exciting about the opening night was that I was seeing a new play by a woman on the Abbey’s main stage. That’s something I’d only ever experienced three times previously, when I saw Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats in 1998, Marina Carr’s Ariel in 2002, and Marina Carr’s Marble in 2010. In other words, Elaine Murphy is only the second woman to have a new play on the Abbey’s main stage during my lifetime. [note - after publishing this post, I got a note from a reader to say that in 1988, Jeane Binnie had a play on the Abbey stage, making her a third Irish woman dramatist - http://www.abbeytheatre.ie/archives/production_detail/702 ]
After the 1930s, Deevy’s plays were revived on the Abbey’s main stage from time to time, notably with Katie Roche, which appeared there in 1975 (it was also revived in the Peacock in 1994). And Lady Gregory’s (unduly neglected) Devorgilla was revived in 1949 and 1966, while her best known plays such as Hyacinth Halvey, Spreading the News, the Rising of the Moon and the Gaol Gate had occasional main stage productions right up to the early 1970s. After that, Gregory more or less disappeared from the repertoire, most noticeably in 2004, when the Abbey’s centenary celebrations featured a play about Gregory (Colm Toibin’s Beauty in a Broken Place) but neglected to produce any of her own works – a poor tribute to a woman who had not just established the theatre but kept it open for almost thirty years of her life. So the Abbey’s main stage has not been hospitable to women dramatists, both historically and more recently.
The story is a little different in the Peacock, where there have been some very good plays by Irish women, especially recently. Since the turn of the century, at the Peacock I’ve seen new work by Stella Feehily, Hilary Fannin, Paula Meehan, and Marina Carr. And in 2010/2011 that theatre staged plays by Marina Carr, Carmel Winters, Nancy Harris, and Stacey Gregg. I’d be curious to know if that was the first time any Irish theatre has staged four plays by different women consecutively: I certainly can’t remember anything comparable happening.
So in the last five years or so, the Abbey has been addressing the neglect of women dramatists historically, and has been making a concerted effort to redress the problem. It’s a pity that their attempts to do so have not generated much comment or coverage, if only because the Abbey is doing something that could be more widely imitated.
In Irish theatre generally, the relative absence of women dramatists is a serious problem. Ireland’s second biggest theatre the Gate produces relatively few new plays; the only time I can recall their producing an original play by a woman was when Yasmina Reza’s Art appeared there in the 1990s (though Anne-Marie Casey wrote a version of Little Women there a couple of years ago, and Joseph O’Connor and Conor McPherson have respectively adapted Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel and The Birds for the theatre).
Druid has produced work by Geraldine Aron throughout its history, and in more recent years premiered Leaves by Lucy Caldwell, but a majority of its productions are by male authors like Synge, Murphy and McDonagh.
Rough Magic has the strongest record in this regard, having premiered a number of important plays by women – many of whom are also actresses, as it happens. Liz Kuti’s Sugar Wife and Gina Moxley’s Danti Dan stand out, but they’ve also produced very good plays by Ionna Anderson, Rosemary Jenkinson, Morna Regan and others.
Likewise Fishamble have brought us work by Sonya Kelly, Abbie Spallen, and Rosalind Hassit – while in the north Tinderbox has recently produced work by Lisa McGee, Rosemary Jenkinson, Stacey Gregg.
But the overall picture is not good. A few years ago, I went through the Irish playography, counting the number of plays by women. Roughly one in four Irish plays produced between 1990 and 2005 were by women. And most of those plays were produced in smaller venues. Plays by women were therefore much less likely to be published, to be reviewed, to be written about by academics, to win awards… And while there have been some improvements lately, things haven’t changed much since then.
It’s not as if women aren’t writing plays, of course. Ursula Rani Sarma and Stella Feehily can be pointed to as examples of very successful Irish women dramatists. But both of them are produced mostly in Britain, and it would probably be fair to say that Feehily in particular is better known in London than she is in Dublin. Similarly, Nicola McCartney is from Belfast, but she appears far more often in surveys of Scottish theatre than in discussions of Irish drama.
So for these and other reasons, it’s great to see the Abbey taking a chance with a new play by a young female dramatist.
As for the play itself… Well, I agreed with Peter Crawley when he stated in his Irish Times review that the play tends to avoid metaphor or significant events; he also pointed out that it’s not very dramatic. He gave it two out of five stars, though, and I thought that was a bit harsh.
Watching the play, I would have liked to have had a sense that there was a bit more going on beneath the surface, but the lack of dramatic action didn’t bother me. This is a play in which characters with no sense of direction sit around talking for hours, contemplating whether they have the will to go on, and engaging in inconsequential games in order to pass the time. Shush is not trying to be Waiting for Godot, but Murphy does show an awareness that Irish audiences don’t necessarily need something to happen regularly. As with so many Irish plays, the drama lies not in the action but in the dialogue. And while the primary theme here is the relationship of these women to each other and to the (off-stage) men in their lives, there are also some interesting explorations of themes like emigration, alcohol abuse, and middle class materialism (and vulnerability to economic shock). Inevitably – perhaps too inevitably – there is a moment in which dance is used to express emotions that are unable to be articulated verbally. So we never feel too far away from another Irish play about five women: Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa.
Murphy also does something that we don’t see often enough in Ireland: she writes five good parts for women of varying ages. The performances here are very funny: the roles could easily enough turn into caricature, but Deirdre Donnelly, Barbara Brennan, Niamh Daly, Evan Bartley and Ruth Hegarty all flesh out their characters in interesting ways. And Jim Culleton as director allows the laughs to come naturally: his direction is unforced and unhurried, and he pays Murphy the compliment of trusting her work. I’m not sure many other directors would have been so generous, and the production is all the better for that.
I suspect that some of my fellow academics may debate, and perhaps even condemn, the play’s gender politics during the coming years. Murphy gives us five women who are for the most part self-fashioning and self-directing; they’re also (mostly) interesting and individualised. But there is also a tendency for the characters to judge and assert their value in relation to whether (and how much) they are noticed by the men in their lives. For example, without wishing to give anything away, there is a moment in the play in which the suggestion seems to be made that the only thing that makes one of the character’s lives worth living is the prospect of attending a significant event in the life of one of her male relatives. We’re used to this kind of characterisation from film and novels, of course, but Murphy leaves those generic conventions largely untroubled. Again a comparison with Lughnasa feels apt: Friel’s five women are to a large extent influenced by how they are seen by men like Gerry Evans, Father Jack and Danny Bradley. But Friel’s play is formally so original that it gives us many other ways to see the characters.
I also wondered about the decision to have the play’s least intelligent character deliver its most insightful speech. The passage works well in performance, and helps to bring us towards the conclusion, but someone could argue that the play seems to be suggesting that the way to be happy is to think about things as little as possible.
These are minor criticisms, though, and they don’t detract much from the many positive qualities of the production. Shush is an entertaining play, and it’s often very funny. And if the genre is familiar, the dialogue itself is very original – it literally sounds like no other play I’ve seen before. I think it will be seen as offering a very good night out, and should be very successful on that basis.
But the real significance of the production, for me anyway, is that it’s a step towards normalising the presence of women dramatists on the main stages of our theatre. We still have a long way to go, of course – but Shush feels like a good start.