'It might not be so far from where the world could be in 100 years'
As Mark O'Rowe's 'Crestfall' returns to the stage, our reporter talks to the cast and director about the darkly apocalyptic play that puts women - and violence - centre-stage
'What do you mean by a feminist play?" The distinguished theatre director Annabelle Comyn has just shot me back a question. There follows an excruciating pause as I struggle to answer her question. A feminist play? A play with real women in it? Help.
Annabelle is sitting with actors Kate Stanley Brennan, Siobhán Cullen and Amy McElhatton at the end of a day's rehearsals for Druid's Crestfall by Mark O'Rowe, which opens at the Galway International Arts Festival on July 14 before moving to the Abbey.
"In its very nature it's feminist," says Siobhán - at last. "It's three women on stage talking about their experiences. And while they're talking about violent things happening to them, they're also talking about their own survival."
"It's complex and explorative representations of women," adds Annabelle. "The women are both victims of violence as well as perpetrators of violence, both physical and emotional."
Why try to peg a work of art as being feminist or not, you ask? Well, because in Mark O'Rowe's 2003 play the cast is all female, which is an unusual and powerful thing. Yet the women suffer brutality that reaches a computer-game level of gore. I wonder if placing three women in a world where they are so easily made into jam tarts is a touch regressive. Or does showing the extremes of violence that can happen to women make it the most feminist play that's ever been shown on the Irish stage?
We don't come to any conclusions by the end of the interview, though Annabelle sharply asserts: "I don't think the violence is gratuitous. He is exploring how people survive."
Crestfall takes the form of three monologues: from Olive Day, a sex addict who has been abused as a child; Alison Ellis, a betrayed wife whose child has a brain injury; and Tilly McQuarrie, a "junkie prozzie" who gets pregnant by her pimp.
O'Rowe - whose plays include Howie the Rookie and Our Few and Evil Days, and who also wrote the film Intermission - will not disappoint with this script. Though it might be best to leave the kids at home for this dystopian revenge tragedy. Anyone upset by things like (spoiler) foul language or filthy innuendo is warned, too.
Crestfall first premiered in 2003, directed by Druid's Garry Hynes in the unsuitable setting of Dublin's Gate Theatre. There were walk-outs and mixed reviews. The Guardian pretty much dismissed it as "empty material". In the New York Times, a US production was described as having "as much sex, violence and cruelty as ten Quentin Tarantino films", O'Rowe's female characters limited to "virgins and whores".
Annabelle feels these early reviews were "reactive". Violence on stage used to shock people more, she says, mentioning Sarah Kane's Blasted. "I think we're much more used to exploring the nature of violence now. We are more attuned to violence."
The director first talked to Mark about Crestfall four years ago. (In the meantime, they worked together on a pristine Hedda Gabler for the Abbey).
"I found the play complex in its thinking and that appealed to me," she says. "The play has a very interesting insight into how we grapple with things in life, traumatic, eventful things.
"Hate can come about when your life is not in a place you want it to be. It's easier to channel hate into another person. It's why violence begets violence. It's a society caught in violence."
Today has apparently been a long day of rehearsals. The four women have been exploring "rage and shame and fear and longing" with a movement director.
The female characters in Crestfall judge and despise each other. Exploring violence between women is, says Siobhán, "really exciting".
"It's heavy material," she adds.
Amy was fresh out of the Lir Academy when she landed the role of Tilly.
"My character has such an open heart and such an innocent mind. But all these things that happen to her - it gets to a point in the play and everything just cracks," she tells me.
"They're all at saturation point. But it's not just them - society has made them like this. It's the world," adds Annabelle.
"We're not physicalising the violence," says Kate, who plays the unfortunate Olive Day. "What's brilliant about Mark's writing is you don't need to do that. The imagery is so visceral.
"Our movement director was just telling us a story about a show of Mark's she went to. People blocked their eyes when they were listening to it - that's how vivid the images he creates are."
Siobhán agrees: "The violence is all in the language." In Crestfall characters stumble around a "wasteland" or "boneland"; some brothers torture a horse, there are shotguns and street brawls. The neighbourhood is unsafe, nightmarish - children don't play, and there's a one-eyed man with a three-eyed dog. Where is this world?
It's not Dublin in a literal way, all agree. Crestfall is apocalyptic, says one of them. Post-apocalyptic, says another. Pre-apocalptic, says a third.
"It's not social reality", says Annabelle. "The play is not looking to pin a society and talk about a group or a class of people.
"The more I read the play, the more I came back to this idea that the women are refugees from themselves. That they aren't able to be the people that they, in another environment, could be. And so their truer selves are forced into hiding or refuge in order to survive, and they all take on personas as a form of armour."
With designer Aedín Cosgrove, Annabelle has been exploring the lives of refugees, delving into container trucks, and the notion of "containment".
Kate says Crestfall has an "ominous feeling, which I relate to a lot in the way I feel about the world at the moment. The feeling of encroaching catastrophe of some sort".
For Siobhán, some of the material "isn't a million miles from the stuff that we're seeing in the news every day. This isn't our world, but it's a broken version".
"It might not be so far from where the world could be in 100 years," says Kate.
Almost 15 years since the premiere, Mark has reworked the script. Later, by email, he explains how this meant fixing "plotholes", and digging deeper into certain places. A scene involving bestiality was taken out to tighten the plot, but the version has not been sanitised, he assures. "I still enjoy exploring darker, more provocative themes, so it was actually a lot of fun to return to something so out there and immerse myself again in its workings."
He created these three female characters because he wanted to try something new. "Having written Howie the Rookie and Made in China, both of which had exclusively male casts, I simply wanted to set myself the challenge of writing about a similar world, but this time from an exclusively female perspective."
He may not have known he was producing something career-defining for three actresses in 2017. "I have never been in an all-female play before, ever," says Siobhán. "And I've also had so few female directors. Two, in my whole career."
"It's great," agrees Kate. "I'm usually very much in the minority in a cast. I would have grown up knowing, as a fact that I didn't question, that it would be much harder for me to be an actress." Why harder?
"Purely because there's just less parts for women. I have to work doubly hard to my other mates." She realised recently that there was only one female writer she had worked with on an original play, Carmel Winters, on Witness.
"There are amazing male writers like Mark that write strong roles for women. But it made me wonder. If there were more female writers, would there be more parts? You're in competition with a lot of people for less parts."
"We have to go up constantly for audition and put ourselves up for rejection," says Siobhán. "That's a unique thing that not many other careers have. We are united in the highs and in the lows."
Crestfall plays at the Mick Lally Theatre July 14-29 and the Abbey's Peacock stage August 1-12.