My Name is Saoirse is set in 1980s Limerick and is a dark comedy about shifting, peanuts and abortion. Director Hildegard Ryan and writer/performer Eva O’Connor chatted to Rashers Tierney about how the religious orders still need to loosen their vampiric grip on our schools and of course their play, which was our hands down favorite at this year’s Dublin Fringe Festival.
Can you tell me something about the background of the play? Where did the idea come from?
Eva: I had an abortion last year, in the UK. I happened to be treated by an Irish nurse and two Irish doctors, and I was struck by the irony of Irish women treating other Irish women abroad. I felt compelled to write about my experience but I wanted to avoid writing a political polemic (as I perhaps have done in the past) and I think Saoirse has reached a lot more people because of this.
Was the writing of it motivated in anyway by The death of Savita Halappanavar back in October 2012 and the movements that sprung up around that?
Hildegard: Yeah, I think the Savita case has highlighted the need to have this discussion about Ireland, the argument of “ah sure you can just go to England” has now been completely destroyed. As we were working on the play in 2013 we had already seen that the bill the government had passed in response to the case was grossly inadequate, and I think we really felt that we had to keep the conversation going and try to make change happen from the ground up.
Judging by much of the online chit chat and the smiles on people’s faces after the performance we saw, the play has become something of an audience favorite. Why have people warmed to it when it really is a rather dark play?
Eva: One journalist summed it up really well, saying she wanted to hug Saoirse all through the play. I think no matter what views people have, they can’t help having compassion for Saoirse, they can see the abortion debate as an individual story rather than a hypothetical and “moral” issue.
Hildegard: Another reviewer said that it deals with dark subject matter through using humour, which is a very Irish way of dealing with things. I think it strikes a chord with the Irish psyche in that way.
Excuse my completely non-thespian thickness, but I imagine a one person play is an awful lot for someone to carry off. How much goes into learning the lines? What sort of techniques are employed? Is it easier if the performer is also the writer?
Eva: The answer to this question of whether it’s easier as the writer, for me, is definitely no. Once I’ve written the play it feels like it’s someone elses work when and when it comes to learning lines I have to drum it into my head the way I would with any other script. I Have quite a visual memory and I tend to recall sections of the script using images which helps a lot. Especially if I’m hungover lol.
Hildegard: Eva’s patented technique for learning lines is desperately muttering to herself on the plane or train on the way to the theatre on opening night, haha.
The play covers topics familiar to readers of rabble, our last issue for instance talked about informed consent and the lack of sexual health education in Irish schools. What was it like in your own schools? Any horror stories about visiting nuns or other loonies giving out skewed advice in your own schools?
Eva: I had the visiting nuns, supposedly giving us sex education, lol, but the reality of the matter was that you were left completely uninformed by what you’re faced with as soon as you go into secondary school and start shifting lads, etc. I remember a really ancient, withered nun teaching us about periods. That memory will never leave me.
Hildegard: Yeah, my secondary school was a supposedly non-denominational school where every morning a morning prayer was read out over the intercom, and we said the Hail Mary at the start of every class. In CSPE we got a class on abortion and the teacher described The Silent Scream video to us, I remember the girl beside me was shaking and I was so angry. My geography teacher, looking back, was a completely out of line too.
She told us that being gay was a sin, that global warming didn’t exist, and she gave all the girls the little badges with the baby’s feet. There were photos of happy little foetuses in the womb all over the wall. I can see now she was completely out of line but when you’re that age you just accept authority figures don’t you. That teacher is still teaching in our old school, so today’s 16 year olds are probably hearing the same stuff, it’s so awful and damaging.
We’re not theatre hounds here, though we try our best, so we haven’t caught any of the other Sunday’s Child productions. Is My Name Is Saoirse typical of the companies work? Tell me about its past productions and how they compare?
Eva: This piece is actually quite different to anything we’ve done in the past. I’ve written “Hard Hitting” plays and I’ve been described as a Skins-esque writer, but in this piece Saoirse’s character draws a lot more on my experiences growing up in rural Ireland rather than my darker experiences at university. Our previous plays have been about depression, drugs, and toxic relationships. Saoirse’s story is about her innocent navigation of adolescence, so rather than the darkness being blatantly presented to the audience they sense it themselves throughout.
Do you think young people are more informed about sex and family planning nowadays, and what changes still need to be made?
Eva: Definitely. I even look at my younger sister and think that she had much more of an enlightened upbringing than I did and that’s very positive, but we still have a long way to go in terms of eradicating stigma around issues of sexuality. For instance people still don’t talk openly about contraception. I have also found that speaking out about my experience of having an abortion is very taboo. People have said to me privately that it’s very “brave” of me to speak out. I think it’s a shame to be considered brave for talking about something that affects thousands of Irish people every year.
Hildegard: I think the internet is a massive force of education for young people these days which is really positive, but we can’t underestimate the influence that schools have on young people’s minds. When schools are still run by religious authorities, I think girls and LGBT young people especially are going to remain on some level repressed or uneducated in terms of their sexuality.
The play won the ‘First Fortnight award’ in the Dublin Fringe just there as well. What other awards has it picked up? And will it be shown again?
Eva: It’s the play’s first award which is really exciting. We were also nominated for Best Performer, and Best New Writing Award. The fringe went ridiculously well for us which is so nice after a year working on it to get it to where it is today.
Hildegard: We brought the play to The Belltable Arts Centre in Limerick in October, and we’re organising a further Irish and UK tour. We’re performing My Name Is Saoirse again this weekend as part of First Fortnight mental health festival.
My Name Is Saorise runs as part of First Forthnight in Smock Alley from January 8th 9th 10th , with a panel discussion on the 8th with the head of First Fortnight, as well as Eva and Hidlegard. Full details here.