Writers' Week 2010

Siobhán Donnellan & Fiachra O Dubhghaill in 'Chasing Butteflies'. Photo: Martin Maguire

Siobhán Donnellan & Fiachra O Dubhghaill in 'Chasing Butteflies'. Photo: Martin Maguire

It is often lamented that there are so few women working as playwrights and theatre directors in Ireland. However, the recent Writers' Week at the Cork Arts Theatre delivered a promising amount of female work in both areas with three of the five plays produced written by women and four of the five plays directed by women. Unfortunately, the tendency to write mostly for male characters still exists with four of the five plays featuring a majority of males in the cast; Katie’s Wake by Alice Lynch being the only exception.

During Writers' Week, six shortlisted plays selected from the annual Cork Arts Theatre One Act Playwright Awards are premiered, with a minimum of two performances of each put on during the week. Bollard by Bernard Farrell was not staged due to ‘unforeseen circumstances’ (but was still considered for a writing award), and so only five plays were presented this year. At the end of the week there is an awards ceremony during which the winners of the Established Writers and New Writers awards are announced.

The week began well with a tense production of Chasing Butterflies by Siobhán Donnellan. Two parents recall the night they each lost a child; one to death, the other to darkness. Annie Caryford (played by the playwright, Siobhán Donnellan) knew there was something wrong before her nephew JJ, a local Garda (Fiachra O’Dubhghaill) arrived at her door with the horrendous news that her daughter had been murdered. Big Story Hannigan (played by Martin Maguire) has no idea what to do when his beloved son returns home covered in someone else’s blood. Should he destroy the bloodstained clothes to save his son... what other choice does he have? A great story well told, Chasing Butterflies is evocative and bittersweet. Director Aoife Connolly took a risk in playing out the wonderfully emotive script against a sparse black backdrop with minimal movement from the actors but it’s a risk that paid off as its gentle direction allowed more room for the story to come to life through the excellent performances of all three cast members, two of whom picked up awards: Siobhán Donnellan for Best Actress and Martin Maguire for Best Actor, while Aoife Connolly walked off with the award for Best Director. Connolly’s direction paid tribute to the nuances and subtleties of the play by focusing the audience’s attention more on the complexities of the script and less on the sparseness of the production, which made for a wonderfully atmospheric event. Delicately balanced between hysteria and awe, Siobhán Donnellan’s first one-act play, Chasing Butterflies, introduces a brave and challenging new voice in Irish playwriting.

Those Sick and Indigent by Alan O’Regan is set in a homeless shelter in Dublin. When Jack Gannon, a homeless man who stayed at the shelter, passes away, Ronan, a member of staff (played by Cian Daly) must gather the deceased man’s belongings. He is helped by another shelter resident (Brendan Hourigan) in the presence of Jack’s disturbed roommate Oxo (Eugene McCarthy). While making an inventory of Jack’s possessions Ronan discovers an unsent letter written by Jack to the love of his life, a woman called Dolor whom he met when he was in New York. As Ronan begins to read the letter, a younger version of Jack (played by Michael O’Callaghan) takes over and tells the audience how a lost love led him to forsake a material life for one on the streets. This is where the real heart of this play begins to beat. Michael O’Callaghan’s performance is elegant and touching, calling to mind performances by classic Hollywood actor Cary Grant. This play takes a while to find its stride and at times depends too much on its wonderful array of one-liners, played to expert comic effect by The Cad, Brendan Hourigan. There are times when the bulky amount of dialogue far exceeds what one would think would be sufficient time for Ronan, the member of staff, to have collected all of Jack’s possessions five times over, and could therefore do with a careful edit. Alan O’Regan won the Best New Writer award for Those Sick and Indigent.

Headhunter by Marie Higgins tells the story of businessman Simon Cotter (played by Sam Hamilton) who keeps on his former schoolmate Ray (Mike O’Dowd) as his employee in order to settle some old scores with him. Unfortunately, the premise sounds better than the actual play where settling old scores comes down to the odd bout of rude shouting and the hugely misguided attempt to steal Ray’s wife Sonia (played by Laura Kennedy). If there was even the slightest chance of this affair occurring then the play might have been interesting but as it was clear that Sonia had more interest in alcohol than she did in Simon, there was little tension to hold the play together. Sonia’s neighbour Meta (Sheila Wall) adds a comic element to the play by thwarting Simon’s plans until he buys her off with a car. In other scenes Ray becomes the comic element, although I’m not sure that it is purposefully intended. There are problems with the casting in that the character of Ray – who asks his wife is she thinks he’s past it – is played by an actor in his twenties, and therefore may be too young to play a part that would be better suited to an older man. Headhunter may be better suited as a storyline in a televised soap opera or as a radio drama, as it does not immediately present itself as a story that is best told on stage. Marie Higgins won the Best Established Writer award for Headhunter.

Katie’s Wake by Alice Lynch is about two sisters who return home for their Aunt Kathleen’s wake and while home discover much about their aunt, a woman they always disliked, that makes them see her in a new light. There is a simplicity about this play that is enjoyable. Confident and warm, the script seamlessly weaves tales from the sisters own lives with stories from their deceased aunt’s past until it becomes like a patchwork quilt of women’s hidden lives and experiences. The cast of four create an atmosphere of ease and warmth, and Claire Jackson is very likeable in her portrayal of the character Niamh. The direction is fluid and direct, as is the dialogue, making for a great overall production.

Death and remorse seem to have been the overall themes for the majority of the plays produced at Writer’s Week and while the standard of writing, directing and acting varied enormously, it is clear that there is a lot of new talent being born at the Cork Arts Theatre.

Nicola Depuis is the author of Mná na hÉireann – The Women Who Shaped Ireland (Mercier Press, 2009).

  • Review
  • Theatre

Writers' Week 2010 by various

23-26 November, 2010

Produced by Cork Arts Theatre
In Cork Arts Theatre

Chasing Butterflies by Siobhan Donnellan
Directed by Aoife Connolly
With Fiachra O’Dubhghaill, Siobhan Donnellan and Martin Maguire

Those Sick and Indigent by Alan O’Regan
Directed by Sarah O’Dwyer
With Eugene McCarthy, Cian Daly, Brendan Hourigan and Michael O’Callaghan

Headhunter by Marie Higgins
Directed by John O’Callaghan
With Sam Hamilton, Ronan Barry, Mike O’Dowd, Laura Kennedy and Sheila Wall

Big Day by Dominic Cogan
Directed by Katrina Foley
With Shauna Zelinski, Cormac Heffernan and Kieran O’Leary

Katie’s Wake by Alice Lynch
Directed by Tess Healy Maguire
With Maria O’Callaghan, Claire Jackson, Tony McCarthy and Una Ryan.