The Big Deal

'The Big Deal' by Úna McKevitt at Kilkenny Arts Festival.

'The Big Deal' by Úna McKevitt at Kilkenny Arts Festival.

The Big Deal is a compelling portrayal of exceptional friends in exceptional circumstances. Although born male, Cathy and Deborah – formerly Patrick and Sean – grew up identifying as female, undergoing gender reassignment surgery as adults. Drawing on interviews, diaries and letters exchanged between the pair as they transitioned during the 1990s, The Big Deal is a moving and unflinching portrayal of lives rarely accounted for in Irish culture, let alone on the Irish stage.

The text from which the performance is built is quite extraordinary in its frankness and depth of feeling. Although essentially based on two subjects’ accounts, many more lives and relationships are illuminated. Both discuss their childhoods, their families, how they wrestled with their emerging identities as young adults. Both also devote considerable attention to reflect upon getting married and having children. Indeed, while grappling with the processes of transition is a key feature of the narrative, the emotional strains and joys of one person being a son, a husband, a father and a woman are at the heart of the play’s exquisitely human drama. Deborah alerts us to the complex sense of loss and gain that undergirds her experience: "You are improving your lot but in doing so you are losing someone important"’ One of Cathy’s happiest memories is handing her son to her father: "It was nice: to be a normal male at something."

Perhaps the most striking feature of the text is just how self-critical the subjects are. They lead us on intensely personal journeys, but never lose sight of the impact that their decisions have on those around them. This is perhaps best captured by Deborah who at one point says: "This is the not the first time I have admitted any of this to myself but it is the first time I have admitted it to someone else. As Sean, as a husband, and as a father, I was a total bastard... a failure. I was always hiding the real me." Despite the costs, there are no major regrets. This is a story about two individuals realising rather than altering themselves.

As with her previous projects, director McKevitt is foremost concerned with presenting the experiences of real people on stage. Unlike Victor and Gord (2009) and 565+ (2010), however, in which family members and friends relay aspects of their own lives, in this production the central experiences are mediated through performers Úna Kavanagh and Shani Williams, who play Cathy and Deborah respectively. Their performances are perfectly pitched somewhere between presentation and acting so that we never forget that the words shared are those of real people. For much of the time they speak directly to the audience, sometimes even looking at each other directly, such as when reciting letters, but are always aware of each other’s presence. On a stage dressed only with two mics and a bench, which sits under a hanging rectangular light, McKevitt strives largely to downplay theatricality. Appropriately so, perhaps, given that when a topic such as this is usually aired in the public domain, it is often in freakishly surreal terms.

Despite the overarching restraint, theatrical gestures rooted in the subjects’ lives give shape to the performance. For instance, Cathy recalls how Deborah gave her an ipod with 400 tunes when she went to Bangkok for her surgery. A number of these songs punctuate the show, from Christy Moore’s 'Lisdoonvarna' to David Bowie’s 'Space Oddity', and they work to separate sections, vary the pace or suggest tone and texture. At one point the pair share a brief dance before continuing with their disclosures. The mics are used effectively to mark a distinction between public and private voices. For example, when recalling how she told her wife about her imminent transition, Deborah amplifies her angered reply: "You should have shown me some respect by not marrying me or having children. Then you wouldn’t have the need to tell me anything." In a more playful moment, the pair rapidly exchange 50 things they’d like to do before turning 50.

While The Big Deal is certainly in keeping with McKevitt’s previous projects, we can also situate it within a wider trend in contemporary Irish theatre practice that involves placing previously silenced personal stories centre stage. Works dealing with gender and sexual exclusion specifically include Sean Millar’s Silver Stars (2008) and Neil Watkins’ The Year of Magical Wanking (2010). The subjects in McKevitt’s important new work remind us there are many voices yet to be heard. It also suggests that while change is difficult, it is often inevitable, and can be richly affirmative and hugely rewarding.

Fintan Walsh

See also: Una McKevitt describes her documentary theatre craft and the background to her latest work, The Big Deal on Irish Theatre Magazine.

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Big Deal by Úna McKevitt

11 - 14 August, 2011

Produced by Úna McKevitt Productions
In Barnstorm theatre, Kilkenny

Directed by Úna McKevitt

Lighting Design: Sinéad Wallace

With: Úna Kavanagh and Shani Williams

Presented as part of Kilkenny Arts Festival 2011; supported by The Arts Council, Project Arts Centre and The Corn Exchange.