How they must hate us. (Rowena)
It is fitting to review Blacklight’s production of Sarah Daniels Masterpieces which ran at Smock Alley from the 2nd to the 7th of March. The play is without doubt one of the most disturbing and thought provoking plays that I have seen. Perhaps the most disturbing element of the production is that though the play is almost forty years old, it has lost none of its relevance for the state of women’s rights in Ireland in the early 2020.
As the audience filter into Smock Alley’s Main Space their is VoxPop playing which shows a variety or Dubliners discussing pornography and whether or not they watch or have watched pornography. It seems like a light discussion with lots of laughing and giggling. It certainly does not strike one as a serious issue.
The views of the wider community towards women’s rights is at the core of the play. Perhaps one of the most striking decisions on the part of the director was to have one of the male characters wear a Repeal t-shirt. For many the wearing of the repeal banner was simply a fashion trend rather than an attempt to give women back their autonomy in terms of their own bodies. Although Trevor wears the Repeal Shirt he could not be more oblivious to issues at the heart of the play. We also see Rowena at the outset of the play pretty indifferent to any issue. When we consider that Rowena is a social worker who works with vulnerable women this should sound an alarm bell.
There is so much that you could discuss in terms of the play but I am going to try and focus on the main issues with the production and with the topic.
First of all, the re-situating of the play in a modern Ireland necessitated a fairly major rewriting of the play. The quality of this rewriting was so good that the production was seamless. If you did not know that the play has been written in London in 1983, you would never guess even for a second that it was not a new play written in Ireland in 2020. While this is due to the director and the indeed the whole production team, it is also partly due to the simple fact that not a lot has changed in the intervening years. The issues at the core of the play face the same problems today that they faced in 1983.
A lot of credit must also go to the actors. In particular Eilis O’Donnell (Rowena) and Danii Byrne (Yvonne) are excellent while Conrad Jones-Brangan (Ron) and Aidan White (Trevor) were both ideally cast and played their parts very well. Though, it is Eilis O’Donnell who really steals the show in terms of acting.
In ways White (Trevor) perhaps had the most difficult role in the play in terms of acting. Trevor is easy going, live and let live sort of guy who doesn’t ask many questions and just wants to enjoy his life without worrying about any difficult issues. Difficult issues do however raise their head and Trevor’s reaction is to run away.
Ron, a much more malign character, is happy to use his position of power to take advantage of Hillary (Gemma Long) and it is this which is at the core of the play. When the play opens we are in the midst of a dinner party with the three couples: Clive and Jennifer, Trevor and Rowena and Rona and Yvonne. It is clear from the start that Yvonne is unhappy.
The play however is more than just a play. But, before, during and after the performance we are given an insight into the state of women’s rights by a serious of commentators such as Ruth Coppinger and Noeline Blackwell. They highlight issues around government policy and the failure of judicial system to deal with the crimes against women and, indeed, the normalisation of these crimes.
It feels wrong to describe Masterpieces as entertaining but it is captivating from start to finish. The play forces the audience to deal with issues that are at once serious and at the same time taken as normal part of everyday life. Sure, it is just pornography. Sure, it is no harm. But, the question at the core of the play is not so simple. Pornography is a serious issue, but is it a cause of the ills or is it ‘merely’ a symptom of a larger issue. Women like it rough, they like to be treated badly and pornography just reinforces this view time and time again.
A lot of credit must go to the Director Cliodhna McAllister and the Producer Colm Doran for the success of this production. It is a difficult play to produce and it demands a lot of the whole team. After it’s highly successful run in Dublin, Irish audiences will get a second chance to see this not to be missed production at The Crescent in Belfast in from April 16-18.
WRITTEN BY : Sarah Daniels
DIRECTED BY : Clíodhna McAllister
LIGHTING DESIGN BY : Matt McGowan
SET & COSTUME DESIGN BY : Alessia Licata
SOUND DESIGN BY : Eoin Malin
COMPOSER : Karima Dillon-El Toukhy
STAGE MANAGER : Ellen Jones
PRODUCER : Colm Doran
CINEMATOGROPHER : Fiona Brennan
PROJECTIONIST : Chris Merton