I really enjoyed this year’s Dublin Fringe Festival. It was two weeks of booking more shows than I could really afford and seeing wonderful performances all over the city. It’s one of my favourite times of year. I love coming out of a half six show while it’s still bright out and then heading off to see something else. I love bumping into friends in theatre foyers and hearing what they’ve seen or what they recommend. Here are some of the things I learnt over the course of the festival.
In May I saw Tana French being interviewed by Anna Carey in Smock Alley. The event was part of the International Festival of Literature. I am a huge admirer of her writing but I’d never heard her speak about it before so I was really looking forward to the event. She didn’t disappoint.
Tana French is an award-winning, best-selling Irish crime writer. In 2007, her debut novel In The Woods was published to critical acclaim and became an award-winning best seller. I wasn’t aware of her books until 2012 when I was introduced to her writing by an American friend. French’s novels have spent many weeks on The New York Times bestseller lists and is maybe better known in the US than she is here.
The friend who told me about Tana French was a fellow drama student in Galway. At the end of the school year, when she was getting ready to head back to the States, she mentioned that one of her favourite authors had a new book out that she planned to buy for the flight home. She was saving this book and looking forward to enjoying it during the long trip. A few weeks later I moved home and was stuck in that mild post-graduation depression/identity-crisis when you’re not a student anymore but you haven’t figured out what the next stage of your life looks like yet. I remembered my friend’s enthusiasm for an Irish author I’d never heard of and went looking for Tana French in the library. I found her first novel In The Woods and promptly did nothing but read it for the next few days. I loved it. I kept going, working my way through her books and recommending them to anyone who asked.
Tana French’s crime fiction almost always involves a murder that is investigated by the Dublin Murder Squad. Her books are brilliant whodunits but what makes them so captivating are her characters. French was an actress before she was a writer and she has a wonderful skill of inhabiting characters and bringing them to life. Although her books are all based around the Murder Squad, the main character and narrator of each book is different.
In Smock Alley, she talked about her decision not to write a traditional series centred about a single detective because putting a different character at the centre of each book, allowed her to encounter that character at a major turning point in their lives or working on a case that had a special significance to the character. She felt that this would be hard to do if she always had the same protagonist. One person’s life can only sustain so many major turning points. It also makes for a much more interesting and revelatory reading experience. Her characters might not always be the self-reflective sort, but as a writer she skillfully reveals things about the way they see themselves over the course of the book.
Listening to French talk about her work, it’s clear that the characters are always central to the story. She is very articulate and passionate in the way that she talks about her work. One of the most fascinating things I find about her writing process is that she doesn’t plan; she says she doesn’t do any major plotting, she just writes blind. I find this impressive because her books are tightly plotted, as any mystery or crime novel has to be. She says she achieves this by doing lots and lots of rewrites.
Tana French started writing when she got an idea for a story while working part-time at an archaeological dig. She was a jobbing-actor at the time and this was a day-job between acting roles. She realised that she was serious about the book when she started turning down acting work so she could focus on writing her own story instead. That book became In The Woods. Comparing writing to acting, she says that she loves writing because she doesn’t have to wait for someone to give her a job, she can just do it herself. She is very enthusiastic about writing for a living, while still acknowledging that there comes a difficult point in every book when she wants to quit and go back to being a broke actor.
She still has an affinity with actors and the difficulties that they face finding work. This came across when she talked about the upcoming tv adaptation of her first two novels. She seemed genuinely delighted that the show was providing work for Irish actors. The show, Dublin Murders, stars Killian Scott and Sarah Greene, and is written by Sarah Phelps who has a couple of very good Agatha Christie tv adaptations under her belt. (And There Was None and The Witness for the Prosecution.) French said that she decided not to have anything to do with the tv adaptation when it became clear that it was not going to be a straight translation of the books – the 8-part tv series will feature the investigations from In The Woods and The Likeness – and decided to let it be a thing on it’s own.
She also talked about her most recent novel The Wych Elm which is a departure from the previous books because it is not set within the Dublin Murder Squad. Instead it follows Toby, a privileged young man who has been lucky all his life, until one night when he is the victim of a violent crime. Toby is young, male and good looking. He’s charming and intelligent and comes from an upper middle-class background. He’s not a bad guy but he has trouble understanding that not everybody’s life is as charmed or easy as his. He’s a fascinating character. During the Q&A portion of the evening, someone asked a question about a writer’s right to inhabit another gender and to say less than flattering things about that gender. I was very impressed with French’s response as she side-stepped the veiled attack and instead focused on the fact that Toby’s privileges, and by extension his character and short-comings, are only partly about gender, they are much more about class. She said that nobody really wants to talk about that though.
As well as being character-driven, French’s novels also have a very strong sense of place. She talked about her nomadic childhood, that moving around a lot made her feel a bit of an outsider, but was good training for a novelist. She came to Dublin for college in the 1990s and since then it has become her home. She spoke movingly about finding a home in Dublin after moving around so much. Her affection for Dublin and for that feeling of belonging came across strongly in the interview and is also in her fiction. Her characters are very much of the places they’re from. She also creates beautiful buildings in her fiction such as the shared house in The Likeness, the Ivy House in The Wych Elm or the school in The Secret Place. She seems grateful for having a place that feels like home, that she knows so well, and the beautifully created places are almost a thank you to Dublin for giving her that. The books are so rooted in Dublin and Ireland. Despite her international readership her characters tend to speak Hiberno-English. They always feel very Irish and that clear sense of place contributes to the enjoyment I get from her books.
Throughout the interview gives the impression of being a very dedicated, hard-working nerd. She is enthusiastic about her work and clearly enjoys it but it also feels like she knows how lucky she is to get to do it and doesn’t want to mess that up. She does lots of research and lots of rewrites. She wants each book to be different from the last, for her own sake as well as the readers. This dedication to her craft comes across in her writing – as a reader, you feel like you’re in safe hands within her pages.
She plans to continue to challenge herself and wants to write a short book next, something like Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, just to see if she can tell a story in that sort of condensed way. I wish her every success, and I look forward to reading her next book, no matter what size it is!
I’m a little late with this but I believe in celebrating the full Twelve Days of Christmas, and this is a Christmassy activity so I feel it’s ok to do it up until Jan 6th. (And yes, maybe I’m just making excuses. My next piece is about new year’s resolutions and I probably won’t get that one online until February. And then I’ll tell you that January doesn’t really count and all sensible people start their new year’s resolutions a month late.)
This is not a year in review post, or an attempt at a Best of. It’s a personal look back at the last year and the art, events and moments that I enjoyed.
This is my fourth and final tv pick for the moment. Our usual (ir)regular blog posts will resume shortly. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a show on Amazon Prime. Now, I don’t like Amazon – I’m a fan of bookshops so Amazon feels like a natural enemy but I also really don’t like how they treat their staff. I don’t use Amazon as a rule. I watched the first series of Mrs. Maisel with a free trial of Amazon Prime and consoled myself with the fact that I wasn’t actually giving them any money. Now I’m in a bit of a bind because I want to watch the second series of Mrs. Maisel (and I really want to see Dietland because I loved the book when I read it last year) and I’m going to end up giving them money and I’m a little bit disappointed in myself for that. I would be very grateful if someone else could please boycott Amazon for the next month on my behalf.
My third tv pick is actually something that was on this year and doesn’t feature the after-life or clones or anything other worldly at all. The Bisexual started on Channel 4 in October and all six episodes are available on All4 in the UK and Ireland, and Hulu (I think) in the US. It’s set in London and revolves around a group of young people but it’s not like the happy, shiny portrayal of adulthood that I grew up on.
My second tv pick is another Netflix show – the wonderfully dark and twisty Orphan Black. This one is definitely not for everyone but if you enjoyed Killing Eve and feel a lack of wise-cracking, murderous women on your tv, you will like Orphan Black. It’s a mix between The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer with our own Maria Doyle Kennedy playing the Giles role – paternal, bit of a worrier but also a secret bad-ass. It’s full of strong women and government conspiracies; no aliens but lots of dodgy science.
Last summer, while waiting for the new series to start, I rewatched The Good Place and found myself getting a little weepy at one of the late series 2 episodes. It was a Sunday and I was hungover and feeling a bit delicate but also it’s a lovely, heart-felt show with characters that you really care about and definitely worth having a little cry over! Have you watched it? Do you love it?
Last month I saw two plays about life in Ireland, and the effect of the IRA. Both were written by English men, both were about things I didn’t know that much about. I saw Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman on a wet afternoon in London at the Gielgud Theatre where it transfer to from the Royal Court. A couple of weeks later I saw Jimmy’s Hall in the Abbey. Both are period pieces set in Ireland but they are very different plays, in their treatment of the IRA and Irish history, and in the way they were staged.
Jimmy’s Hall is based on the Ken Loach film of the same name, and they are both based on the true story of Jimmy Galvin and the community hall he built and managed in Leitrim in the 1930s. It’s about the opposition he encountered when he organised community art classes, poetry performances and dances. This opposition originated from the Catholic Church but ultimately it was the Irish government who had him deported; the only Irish man to ever be deported from the State.
The Abbey’s production emphasises the real-life aspects of the story, with direct addresses to the audience that includes Church directives on what women could and couldn’t wear, descriptions of the court scenes at Jimmy’s trial and a recent speech by President Higgins where he called out the shameful behaviour of the State. This opens the show and of course made me teary-eyed. There are few things as effecting as the rightous anger of our magnificent president.
The production is also lushly visual and includes lots of live music. This is performed by the cast who also perform wonderful dance sequences. We get the impression of a community that is lively and connected, despite being ground down by poverty. The characters talk about the broken promises of the 1916 Rising, about how the bubble burst, about the uselessness of politicians and how living should be about need, not greed. Their concerns and difficulties resonance with the present day, with characters facing homelessness and even the Church’s insistence on controlling education is similar to their Sisters of Charity’s attempt to hold on to control of the new maternity hospital earlier this year. We continue to fight the same battles. Our hero, Mr. Jimmy Galvin is a proud communist, working for the betterment of all. In contrast the clear villain of the piece is the parish priest, Fr. Sheridan who was almost booed like a pantomime villain when he first appeared on stage. It was an interesting experience to feel that distaste for the church in the Abbey Theatre on a Saturday lunchtime from an Abbey audience. The off-stage villain was the IRA who it was felt had let down the people by getting into bed with the Church.
The priest in The Ferryman is a more pathetic character as he is forced to act as messenger boy for the IRA, sent to deliver information about a man, missing for the last 10 years has been found dead. It’s 1981, Maggie Thatcher is letting the hunger strikers die in prison and the Carney family are getting ready for the harvest. The Ferryman is strongly grounded in that time and place, there are no present day echos here. The set and costumes are impressive with a strong attention to detail. This set quickly fills with members of the Carney family.
From the beginning, the audience knows that this happy, busy, family day is going to interrupted with the news that a body has been discovered. It is skillfully told, and there’s a lot to tell in this 3 hour production, and very enjoyable. The Carneys are a good Catholic family with seven children, though when one of the younger girls is told her future by her clairvoyant grandmother, she baulks at the idea of triplets. They don’t see motherhood as their only option. It feels like a time teetering on the cusp of modernity. The Undertones make an appearance on the soundtrack and the clothes are relatively modern, but the work of bringing in the harvest is left to the men. The female children busy themselves with kitchen chores and childcare while male cousins are bussed in to help with the farm work. The IRA are glorified and the Rising has already become a glorious myth in a way that is not felt in Jimmy’s Hall when all the bloodshed and friends and family lost are still fresh wounds.
Patrick Lonergan has written a post called “Is Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman an Irish Play?” where he talks about the various echos of many plays from the Irish canon, among other things. I found The Ferryman a more traditionally Irish play than the first in-house production from the new Abbey directors. There are aspects of post-dramatic theatre in Jimmy’s Hall and the use of dance and music feels modern. Even the soundtrack is modern – the audience enter the auditorium to trad covers of Whitney Houston among others. The Ireland depicted in The Ferryman is gone, and it’s depicted with a certain nostalgia. The Ireland in Jimmy’s Hall on the other hand – an Ireland still struggling out from under the long shadow of the Church’s control, an Ireland that doesn’t protect or support it’s most vulnerable citizens – that feels very current.
The Ferryman is the bigger production of the two, with a long running time, a big cast, including lots of young children and live animals and a violent, dramatic ending. However it is Jimmy’s Hall that I would love to see again. It felt more moving, more engaging and more relevant than a lot of things I’ve seen lately. It reminded me of Riot, which is one of my favourite shows from the last year. The inclusion of The Parting Glass in both shows makes me think I may not have been the only one to link the two.
Have you seen Katie Roche at the Abbey yet? It’s very good. I recommend it. It feels very modern. I don’t know if it’s the writing or the production; probably a bit of both. The character of Katie feels modern, she is opinionated and ambitious and fun. The play shows that modern, free woman trying to fit into the restrictive, hyper-patriarchal Ireland of the 1930s, a time that had very set ideas about how women should be. Katie Roche illustrates how harmful those ideas were, and how harmful it can be to be a round peg trying to fix into a square hole. It’s also a wonderful visual show, with a magnificent performance by Caoilfhionn Dunne.
Katie Roche was the sixth show I’ve seen in the Abbey so far this year and I’ve enjoyed them all immensely. I loved revisiting old favourites such as Dublin by Lamplight (which was so beautiful on that stage) and Ballyturk (where I enjoyed the addition of Olwen Fouéré), I loved getting a chance to see Druid’s magnificent production of Waiting for Godot after I missed it in Galway. I enjoyed Room which was a very different show for the Abbey, and I adored Jimmy’s Hall. I have more to say about Jimmy’s Hall but I will save it for another post!
I like what the new guys at the Abbey have done so far. I haven’t been organised enough to get to one of the free previews yet, but I think it’s a great idea. I also went to a couple of the Peacock work in progresses – A Whisper Anywhere Else by Jimmy Fay and Not A Funny Word by Tara Flynn. Plays that take a clear stand against the church, the police force, the state – things that feel a little subversive to be discussing in the Abbey Theatre. I love that Jimmy’s Hall opened in Leitrim and that Two Pints toured to pubs around the country. I think the new directors are doing what they set out to do by taking the Abbey out of Dublin and making it a nationwide National Theatre. There have also been day-long working sessions on gender and new writing and I’m interested to see what comes out of those.
So get to Katie Roche if you can. It closes on Saturday so there are only three shows left and I know it’s hard to ignore all the Fringe goodies, but try and make some time to see this show too, if you get a change.
Over the last year and a bit I’ve been reading a lot of books about feminism. Partly as research for a thing I’m writing but mostly just because I’m interested. (This is also why I’m writing about it!)
Here is a short round-up of my feminist reading list.
The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer
Germaine Greer’s feminist manifesto seems to me to be the grandmother of all feminist texts, the one that started the second wave of feminism. First published in 1970, it attempts to cover all aspects of being a woman under the headings Body, Soul and Love. This edition was published in 2006 and includes a new foreword by Greer about what the world is like for women at the beginning of the 21st century.
I didn’t find the book as informative or as an inspiring as I’d hoped. The second wave of feminism is a movement that I’m very familiar with which meant it felt more dated than revolutionary. It’s very much one-woman’s view of the world and how women should think and behave, it’s a bit too academic and a bit too bossy for my tastes.
The added extras at the back include a essay by Elizabeth Wurtzel called The New C-Word, which I did find interesting. It condemns the notion that feminism is all about choice; that anything a woman chooses to do is a feminist action. She writes “To say anything goes, feminism is whatever you believe it is, not only renders the movement meaningless but also amounts to a demand for rights without responsibility…We don’t have to respect everyone’s choices and we do have to say to certain women that they are behaving like idiots, that their choices are not good enough for a feminist world.”
The Guardian recently listed The Female Eunuch as one of it’s 100 best nonfiction books, they obviously liked it more than I did!
The Feminine Mystic, Betty Friedan
The Feminine Mystic was first published in the 1963 but to me, it felt more relevant and contemporary than The Female Eunuch. I liked the fact that there was so much research behind it. Fifteen years after they graduated, Friedan sent an intensive questionnaire to her college classmates. She got responses from 200 women. She also interviewed 80 women and analysed popular media, namely women’s magazines. She looked at how women are described in these magazines, in articles and in fiction, and what that says about how women are perceived by society. Similar studies done today look at female roles in tv and film, such as the fascinating Largest Ever Analysis of Film Dialogue by Gender.
Frieden coined the phrase “the problem that has no name” for the yearning and dissatisfaction that American housewives felt in the 1950s and 1960s. This problem often manifested itself in physical as well as psychological symptoms. These women got married in their early twenties and were constantly told, particularly by advertisers, that being a wife and mother was the most worthwhile thing they could possibly aspire to. Friedan’s descriptions of how home-making was marketed to women in the 1950s reminded me of the early Noughties when domesticity was very much back in fashion. Women were sold an idealised cupcakes-and-crafts version of femininity and the Domestic Goddess was (re)born. The battle for equality seems to be circular. American women found a place outside the home during WW II but afterwards they were aggressively encouraged to go back to being a housewife. The cult of domestic goddess was a reaction to the 80s Career Women and the Ladette of the 90s. Even in the early Irish State, after women played key roles in the trade union movement, the Easter Rising and the War of Independence, once freedom was achieved De Valera’s government sent them swiftly back into the home, literally writing it into Article 41.2 of the constitution. A lot of work has gone into keeping women in the home over the years.
Girls Will Be Girls, Emer O’Toole
At last, a book that’s about my own country written during the present century! After reading books about feminism in different countries and different times in the past, it was wonderful to read about an Irish woman’s experience, particularly someone around the same age as me, who has had similar experiences. This really is unusual and revelatory. Women are uniquely skilled at putting them into the place of the person they are reading about – even if they are very different. We’re good at it because books are mostly written about people who aren’t like us. It’s a much more satisfying experience to see your own experiences reflected back at you through someone else’s eyes. For any Irish woman, this book is work reading for that alone.
There are lots of other great reasons to read this book. It’s written in a more populist way than the more academic texts on this list. In a way it’s a beginners guide because it charts someone coming out as a feminist and realising the need for feminism, which the other books don’t really do.
It’s also very very funny. There aren’t a lot of laughs in the two previous books but O’Toole will have you snorting with laughter and at the most inappropriate things. For a little taster, read her piece about not shaving. But between the laughs there’s also some excellent information, such as also this mind-blowing bit of info about the clitoris.
“Shockingly, the clitoris remains either misrepresented or omitted in much contemporary medical literature, including many of the anatomy textbooks used to train doctors. In spite of the pioneering work of the urologist Helen O’Connell in the nineties and early noughties, the first 3D model of the clitoris wasn’t made until 2009. So, to put that in some kind of perspective: modern science authoritatively mapped and made models of the human genome before it adequately described or modelled the clitoris.”
It angers me that science and medicine plays so little attention to the female body. To the extent that car test-dummies are always male so they only examine what happens to the male body in a collision (and extrapolate that the same would happen to a woman. It wouldn’t. Our bodies are different.). I think it is shameful that women’s bodies are treated like this. Doctors still don’t really know what causes endometriosis even though 1 in 10 women suffer from it and there is still a lot unknown about the menopause, which all women will go through.
Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay
This is not really a book about feminism. It’s a book of personal essays with a provocative title but it certainly delivers on that title. Elizabeth Wurtzel’s essay on The New C-Word was about calling out women who’s “choices are not good enough for a feminist world”. Gay’s book gives you permission to be that person. Nobody is perfect and everyone makes bad choices now and again.
Roxane Gay is a great writer and here she writes persuasively and engagingly about a host of different topics including gender, race, rape culture, women in popular culture and competitive scrabble tournaments. I found her writing about race and popular culture particularly enlightening. This book should be required reading for Gerry Adams and his ilk. It’s book that made me see the world differently, and while Gay writes critically about popular culture, she is also very enthusiastic about the things she loves. I find her very likeable from her writing. She’s also good fun on twitter. It is one woman’s view of the world, but instead of attempting to say that this is the way it should be for all women, these are personal essays that only aim to show one person’s experience of the world. It’s a more inclusive way of writing.
That’s some of the books I’ve been reading in the last year. Some upcoming feminist books that I am looking forward to include Lindy West’s Shrill and Laura Bates’ Girl Up. Both women are in Dublin this month to talk about their books and I’m looking forward to seeing them live as well. I’m always interested in recommendations of good nerdy, feminist books so if you have suggestions, please let me know!