Deirdre Kinahan’s _the Unmanageable Sisters_ at the Abbey

So I’m on my way back home after watching The Unmanageable Sisters, Deirdre Kinahan’s adaptation of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-Soeurs. It’s been one of those nice nights at the theatre where I came away wanting to send texts to all the people who I know who will enjoy it…

It’s a great script, full of humour and variety; the only negative thing I can say about it is that you’ll come away wondering why Kinahan wasn’t produced on the Abbey mainstage before now. And the performances (about which more in a minute) are excellent. I enjoyed it: it’s the best thing I’ve seen at the Abbey during the current Artistic Directorship.

I also came away wondering why the play was put on now, and what it might be trying to say to Ireland and/or the Abbey’s audience now.

Les Belles-Soeurs is one of those great revolutionary plays, a kind of Quebecois Playboy of the Western World – a work that was controversial in its time but which went on to have a formative impact on Quebecois theatre, and its culture and identity more broadly. It later did something similar in Scotland when, in 1988, it was translated to a Glaswegian dialect as The Guid Sisters, earning Tremblay the title of ‘the greatest Scottish playwright Scotland never had’. But in both of those places, it was compared to what Synge and O’Casey had done for the Irish theatre – prompting the question of how it might speak back into the Irish tradition.

Tremblay has been produced in Ireland before, of course – the first thing I ever published was a review of his For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again at the Peacock in 2002; and Tom Creed did one of his plays for Rough Magic about 10 years ago also. But I don’t think we’ve any real sense of how important he was for his own culture, how transformative an impact he had.

Les Belles-Souers was controversial and important for two reasons: Tremblay’s use of a vernacular language that had not been heard on stage before, and his analysis of how working-class women in Quebec were restricted to punishingly narrow roles due to the influence of Catholicism. Tremblay offers a powerful analysis of patriarchy, showing how the women in his play have been so thoroughly indoctrinated that they carry out their own oppression, policing each other mercilessly. Class and economics are also an important concern in the play: these characters are divided from and in conflict with each other because of a desire to win and possess stuff – useless, gaudy, pointless stuff. Materialism is the thing that makes solidarity impossible, Tremblay shows.

In Quebec, audiences greeted the original play as offering the thrill of hearing something that was part of their everyday life but which had never been represented on stage before. In Dublin we have had no shortage of plays set in the Ballymun flats (which is where the action happens in Kinahan’s adaptation). And while another such play is welcome, my point is that where Tremblay’s use of language was revolutionary, one of the interesting things here is that it’s language we know very well.

And the other thing we are well used to are plays that criticise the impact of Catholicism on Irish life. And yes, certainly, we need to keep telling those stories, making sure that we understand how easily religion can become a vehicle for the powerful to control the powerless; making sure we don’t forget what was done to people in the name of religion in this country; and so on. But Les Belles-Soeurs and The Guid Sisters were both trying to say something new, trying to change the way their audiences saw things. This production in contrast is telling us things we already know – which again is really interesting: one of the most interesting moments is a discussion of a local priest’s interest in working with children – a line that sent a shudder down several spines in the audience, though the characters themselves see him as a ‘saint’. Viewed from our vantage point, we can see in embryonic form many things that later became more apparent.

That’s not to say that it’s a history play: there is some highly pertinent discussion of abortion, for example. And its analysis of patriarchy, social class, and materialism is certainly relevant to our own times. But the  aim seems to be to think about the past rather than changing the present.

This sense of distance from the present might also explain the one major misstep in the production, which is that it concludes with the cast singing the Irish national anthem. This isn’t included in the published script so I’m assuming the decision was made by the director (Graham McLaren) rather than Kinahan, though that is only an assumption. But either way, it was clear that what was being asserted was that what we were seeing was not a play set in Ireland but a play about Ireland. [EDIT = Since I published this blog post someone has written to me to remind me that the anthem appears in the original too, which is an important point to bear in mind]

One of the important things that both Tremblay and Kinahan are trying to do is to show that women have – both in society and on stage – been restricted to the role of iconic figures: mother, wife, daughter, virgin, whore, Kathleen ni Houlihan. Indeed, Kinahan says directly in her programme note that she’s trying to capture a time in which the ‘sanctified place of women as mothers and homemakers … was about to be questioned’. And the script does exactly that: it shows all of these women as individuals who are trying to live up to (or escape) roles that have been written for them by someone else: they are trapped, they say, by the walls of their flats, by Ireland, by a lack of money – but in fact they are trapped mostly by the limited forms of identity available to them. They don’t know how to be themselves, how to express who they really are. All they know how to be is good Catholic mothers and wives, and if they don’t want to do that they have to leave Ireland. And it’s making them all miserable.

By playing the national anthem at the end, the production risks turning those women back into icons though, as if what we’ve watched symbolises IRELAND (in all caps). That feels both untrue to the characterisation and  heavy-handed. Tonight, it also confused the audience, who didn’t quite know when the play had finished; the actors had to gesture to stop them from clapping as they sang.

And the problem with that for me is that this is a really important production already, and doesn’t need that final emphasis. This production actually is revolutionary and is of national significance, in one very important way. I’ve simply never before seen a production, in any country, that gives individual speaking roles to so many female performers. Yes, there are plays like The Suppliant Women. But this is different – the only comparable experience I’ve had was in seeing the first productions of Dancing at Lughnasa, where (similarly) audiences were delighted to see characters who they knew from life but had not seen before on stage.

Some of these actors are people we see fairly regularly on our stages: Marion O’Dwyer, Catherine Walsh, Lisa Lambe. But a big part of my enjoyment of the night was in seeing people like Catherine Byrne and Karen Ardiff on the Abbey main-stage again: brilliant actors who appeared at the Abbey regularly in the 1990s when I first started going there but have been cast less frequently since then. And throughout the ensemble we have actors who I believe were making their debut at the Abbey (but I can’t check this because the information was not available in a show programme). There was something very joyful about being in a theatre and seeing so many great performers in one play together.

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And the performances are excellent, both individually and collectively. We have some great moments of choric chanting – including a hilarious ode to the joys of bingo. There is also some excellent direct addresses of the audience from many of the characters – again underscoring that distinction between the public and private selves of the women. And there’s some very nice comedic work from all of the actors.

This in turn leads me to lament, and not for the first time, the Abbey’s decision to stop publishing show programmes. Yes, the script of this play is for sale; and yes there is a playbill that gives the names of the actors and other artists, and which has a short note from Kinahan. I’m sure there’s a good, probably financial, reason for the decision to stop producing them, but show programmes have always been very important for showing us what the Abbey is thinking, what the vision is, what they why behind the this thing on stage is.

And they are good too for telling us things that we don’t know that we don’t know. I think it’s a shame that people going to this play tonight could come away barely aware that it was written by Tremblay, and that they would not have known what other plays Kinahan has written – just as (more seriously) they were able to come away from last year’s Katie Roche knowing almost nothing about Teresa Deevy. Also: show programmes feature actors’ biographies. I had a problem with the fact that we’re getting to see a brilliant ensemble of actors here but can’t find out more about them. Even if the information is online somewhere (and I couldn’t find it), how many audience-members are going to go to the trouble of checking afterwards?

Also: Joan O’Clery’s costumes are brilliant.

The Unmanageable Sisters is what Gay Byrne (who’s referenced here in a very funny recorded impersonation by Owen Roe) would have called a ‘good night out’. It’s very well written and it’s very well acted, and even though it’s very long it zips along so well that you don’t feel the time passing. But there’s one final reason that I wanted to write to people about the play: the theatre was less than half full. Now, yes, it was a Monday night early in the run. But in my own theatre-going I’m observing a pattern of very strong productions of plays by women not getting the kinds of audiences that I would normally see in the relevant theatres. I’m thinking here of Nina Raine’s Tribes at the Gate and for Katie Roche at the Abbey, for example.

Post-wakingthefeminists we’ve (rightly) put a lot of focus on theatres’ policies to promote equality. But audiences have to do their bit too. Expressing disgust on Twitter is easier than buying a ticket, but nothing will change unless people go to see these plays. We probably need to start thinking and talking more about how we can start waking Irish audiences. In the meantime, going to see The Unmanageable Sisters is highly recommended. Bring a few people with you.