Mary Motorhead

Cora Fenton in 'Mary Motorhead'. Photo: Robert McCormack

Cora Fenton in 'Mary Motorhead'. Photo: Robert McCormack

Cora Fenton in 'Mary Motorhead'. Photo: Robert McCormack

Cora Fenton in 'Mary Motorhead'. Photo: Robert McCormack

Mary ‘Motorhead’ is in prison. She lies on her bed reading, while scenes of the outdoor world as seen from the window of a car are projected onto the wall behind her. She is doing six years for stabbing her husband, Red, in the head with a knife. History is invention, she tells us, a story made up based on sometimes scant knowledge of the available facts. Each of us has a known history and a secret one. The secret history, she explains, is what really happened – what was going on inside – something that regular history, or reportage, or maybe representation, can never really know. So, Mary invites us to hear her secret history, and in hearing it, we might understand why she stabbed her husband in the head.

Mark O’Halloran finally drops the other shoe in this companion piece to The Head of Red O’Brien, which preceeded it by three weeks at Bewley’s Café Theatre. This play delves into the emotional and psychological world of the other half of the dysfunctional couple whose elliptical story was partly outlined for us from one point of view in the previous play. There is a certain intriguing artifice in using the short lunchtime slot like episodes of a serial drama, but actually these plays are very different pieces. Where Red O’Brien strove for a kind of poetry because Red saw the world through a veil of delusion and brain damage, Mary Motorhead is more grounded in the mundane horror of the ordinary.

Mary’s monologue, delivered with precision and conviction by Cora Fenton, tells a grim story of a life without real expectation – a crushing, horizon-less upbringing in the barren wasteland of Irish culture and geography. (Landscape, she tells us, is the thing with which all stories must begin, because in adapting to them, we become who we are.) She describes her childhood disappointments and betrayals, her loveless family, her faithless best friend, and how she drifted into a relationship with Red because he made her laugh. She describes how she latched onto Red with the fury of great need. As they seemed to drift apart, she began to hit him to be sure he was still there, still available to her. She stabbed him in the head “to crack him open to see if he was in there – to see if I was in there.” Mystery solved.

Taken together, these two plays become a pitch-black tragedy of disconnected souls. Neither of these people knows the other, and though both find some solace in each other's company, it has ended in disaster. At the end of Red O’Brien Red could think only of seeing Mary again, of telling her he loved her. At the end of Mary Motorhead, Mary assures us she will never see him again because she loves him too much – she believes she has set him free of her. They’re both still wrong about each other, and they’re both still lost.

Cora Fenton in 'Mary Motorhead'. Photo: Robert McCormackO’Halloran doesn’t quite explain everything from Red O’Brien, and again this points to a degree of disconnection between the characters. Red’s insane Hunt for Red October fixation doesn’t feature in Mary’s narrative at all, nor, in spite of references to her taking courses in prison, does her interest in reading. (Red tells us she read Ulysses – here she’s reading The Shawshank Redemption.) Mary is self-aware, certainly, and O’Halloran gives Fenton good, strong descriptive dialogue with which to articulate her developed perspective. But her world has no poetry in it, which, aesthetically, marks an odd contrast with Red’s quasi-hallucinogenic mental meandering in the first play. The pieces interconnect, but are not one, and I guess this is the point of the dyptych presentation.

Again Rae Visser’s direction is uncomplicated – allowing Fenton and O’Halloran the space they need to tell this story. There are conscious patterns in the mise-en-scène to do with where the prison/hospital bed is placed, the use of film projection, and the presence of an orange (Red’s first articulated word after his aphasia). Lighting and sound are uncredited on the flyer for Mary Motorhead, but we would have to presume the same team are behind it as Red O’Brien, as, again, there is a consistency of tone and overall effect.

Taken apart, Mary Motorhead is a solidly observed tragic-comic monologue performed well and telling a good, realist story. Audiences attending this show without knowledge of its predecessor will understand none of the intertextual nuance (or is it dialectical collision?), but they are actually not required to. In fact, given how the ending here suggests a kind of poignant liberation, but when considered with its stable-mate it suggests black despair, they’re probably as well off not knowing.

Dr. Harvey O'Brien, O'Kane Centre for Film Studies, University College Dublin.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Mary Motorhead by Mark O’Halloran

2 - 19 February, 2011

Produced by TrueWest Theatre
In Bewley's Café Theatre

Directed by Rae Visser

With: Cora Fenton