Brighton Fringe 2016
Face to Face Theatre brings Caroline Burns Cooke and her one-woman play to the Warren Studio 2, directed by Colin Watkeys.
Caroline Burns Cooke and Face to Face Theatre have brought her one-woman play to the Warren Studio 2, directed by Colin Watkeys.
Opening and closing this production washes that rival to Barber’s Adagio, Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3: ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ whose central section is a setting of an 18-year old girl’s scratched prayer in a 1943 Polish prison cell. It so happened the same music sounded in another Irish play this writer had just returned from: the Beckett Trilogy. But here director Watkeys’ choice of music is unerringly apposite. An innocent Catholic girl is incarcerated by the state. Lament is her only articulation. Everything in this production’s pitched to darkness, even Cooke’s perennially Irish black dress offset by bare feet that at one point essay a superb parody of bad jigs.
Kerry, 1984. Lianne is accused of infanticide. Even when the truth’s known, the reactionary forces led by the Catholic church insist on finding Lianne guilty – of sexuality, of being a woman. This isn’t fiction. Someone texted me the real name of the protagonist afterwards: they knew her.
Caroline Burns Cooke inhabits not just Lianne but a battery of selves, family members, local friend-of-family policeman, police interrogator, nun, and feminist lesbian commentator.
This last feists up the storyline, confiding upstage centre dangling her feet over the stage and getting people to join in her protest song. ‘And alcoholic’ she suggests the beaker’s full of gin. Cooke alters timbre, just projecting enough not to parody her own powers, injecting humour where other characters play straight.
We’re treated to the litany of priests-as-husbands with housekeepers or other girlfriends and illegitimate children, other priests absolving them before they can give mass in a state of grace just after a dirty weekend and so on. Or the unavailability of condoms in Catholic chemists and the would-be-suiciding girls otherwise ending up ‘visiting’ relatives in the UK returning un-pregnant. This writer’s father as a doctor in the Meath Dublin was involved in both these latter activities. Burns’ feminist adds the Catholic abuse scandal was yet to be enjoyed ‘and don’t even get onto abortion’.
Cooke’s Lianne voice varies from withdrawn to confiding –more touchingly than the gin-swigging academic – and a projection of inward pain tellingly harrowed through her ordeal clearly maps the greatest journey, her register from playful sexuality to shuddering bereavement. She enjoys an affair with a married man, has daughter Yvonne, slips back, falls pregnant a second time. She claims the child’s stillborn: she gives birth rapidly with no means of proper delivery. A baby’s found stabbed fifteen times nearby. After Lianne and her whole family including senile aunt and challenged younger brother ‘confess’ Lianne’s own baby is discovered. It’s just the start. The rest must be seen.
Family policeman O’Doherty seems at first sympathetic; then he and ‘bad-cop’ colleague shred Lianne’s defence slowly. They’re both pillared in misogynistic rectitude to a venturi of body and voice by Cooke. The second baby is an inconvenience.
The epiphanic moments – including support for Lianne in a welter of yellow flowers from busloads of supporters including nuns – offsets the dark this comically-edged narrative of sex, birth, shame, birth, bereavement and accusation inlays the audience with.
For many, there’ll be comparisons with ex-actor Eimar McBride’s novel A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing adapted by Annie Ryan, where Aiofe Duffin riots a gamut of personae. Cooke’s though is a true story, and her maturity deploys a breadth of characters, playing with an amplitude of sensibilities – including humour – that mark this different, hardly inferior exploration.
Cooke’s variety of attack ensures too this work fleets by; Watkeys’ clean unfussy way with positioning Cooke ensures the latter capitalizes on every opportunity to appear different. Lighting and music – as indicated – perfect the envelope of sacrament and sacrifice Irishwomen still make, being women.
The play’s stature however lies in the pendant coda: that second birth before blackout. The last lines are so nailingly memorable that though you think you have the measure of the work, this sends you out reeling.