Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Friday 22 June 2018

Louise O'Neill and Meadhbh McHugh on adapting 'Asking for It' for the stage, portraying sexual violence, and the Ulster rape trial

To bring her 2015 novel Asking For It to the stage, Louise O'Neill handed it over to playwright Meadhbh McHugh. The pair talk to Maggie Armstrong about the adaptation process, the challenges of portraying sexual violence and the recent Ulster rape trial

Author Louise O'Neill, right, and playwright Meadhbh McHugh. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Author Louise O'Neill, right, and playwright Meadhbh McHugh. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Forensic approach: Louise O'Neill and Meadhbh McHugh. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Afew years ago I exchanged some emails with a girl from college. She told me she had written a novel. We met for tea a couple of times, kept in touch on Twitter and then met no more. She moved home to Clonakilty to write, and her career went stratospheric.

It's a strange experience, waiting in the corner of the Gresham for Louise O'Neill and Meadhbh McHugh, the Tuam playwright who has just adapted Louise's novel Asking for It for the stage. That friendly red-haired girl from college has become a decorated author and feminist supremo, a talented journalist and activist for abortion rights, a motivational speaker, a cover girl. Her mum made me sausages once in Clonakilty after I'd had a few too many shandies. I don't know why, but I cling to the memory.

Both writers plough through the foyer. They are both warm and lovely - but under pressure. Asking for It is in rehearsals, and we have just 30 minutes for the interview. It's like speed dating with feminists. Nice feminists.

The two young writers both studied at Trinity, but they don't know each other well. However, they are big fans of each other's work; maybe even a small love-in takes place.

Forensic approach: Louise O'Neill and Meadhbh McHugh. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Forensic approach: Louise O'Neill and Meadhbh McHugh. Photo: Caroline Quinn

"I was blown away, it made me cry," says Louise about a read-through of the play she witnessed. She entrusted her precious novel to another writer and a good job was done: perched next to each other on a sofa, their relief is palpable.

Meadhbh is jet-lagged, having just flown in from New York, where she lives. She orders a strong coffee. Louise doesn't like coffee.

"Try Red Bull?" asks the waitress.

Louise shakes her head. "If I drink anything with caffeine, my heart feels like it's going to explode."

When I press record, the author rubs her hands together and flexes her arms. She is in the zone. This is not the first interview she has done in 2018, and it won't be the last. She is everywhere. Louise has published four books in four years, two of them in the past two months and one launched just last night - The Surface Breaks, in which she takes on none other than Hans Christian Andersen in a feminist rewriting of The Little Mermaid.

Her first novel came out in 2013, the dystopian Only Ever Yours. There was a bidding war and soon there will be a movie. When it came to her second novel, she might have flunked. She didn't. She got the idea for Asking for It when pictures went viral of a girl at a concert in Slane. 'Slane girl' became a kind of national effigy.

"I was at a 21st birthday party and there were a lot of lads there talking about it. I just put up the point, 'why isn't it Slane boy?' There were three men involved. Why is it always the woman that's vilified? I'm great fun at parties, because I kept pushing it.

"I went home that night and I was so angry. When I have an overwhelming emotion, generally I need to put it into my writing, because that's the only way I know how to process it."

The idea she brought to her editor at Quercus in London was unheard of on the YA market. She would write about the shaming of a young woman, but take the Slane story further. Supposing that woman had been raped, then photographed and ostracised by her community?

Asking for it is about the rape of 'Ballinatoom girl' Emma O'Donovan. It is, like all Louise's books, timely, a kind of parable for the digital age. Some even say it was prophetic.

"I first gave it to my dad to read. I was a little bit nervous, because the book is a damning indictment of small-town life and jock culture and obviously my father is a GAA football star, and a pillar of the local community," says Louise.

"He came back to me and said, 'This is going to be a really important story. I hope you're ready'."

With a winsome social-media persona to promote the book, she was our newest literary star, among a stable of exciting newcomers like Donal Ryan, Rob Doyle and Sara Baume. While book sales soared and Louise picked up awards, she was receiving messages from survivors of rape and sexual violence. In 2016, she wrote the acclaimed documentary for RTÉ about consent. A TV adaptation of Asking for It is in development. Now a dream team are bringing it to the stage: director Annabelle Comyn and a punchy Lauren Coe in the leading role.

Meadhbh hadn't read Asking for It before Landmark asked her last summer to adapt it, together with Annabelle Comyn.

"I immediately downloaded the book, read it, and absolutely wanted to do it," says Meadhbh, who also wrote the play Helen and I.

She took a "forensic" approach, reading the book five times and making notes on characters, their journeys and the moods of the chapters. She invented dialogue and cut scenes and characters to create a two-act play with 12 characters. "I had to pull it all apart," she says.

"We're still finding new things. That is a sign of a really good book, how much you can get from reading and rereading."

Louise gave Meadhbh and Annabelle a free hand with the adaptation. Did she really have no changes to the script, no tiny, crucial objections?

"I wouldn't think it was my place to make any changes - it's kind of your story now as well," says Louise. She explains why this is. In 2016, she says, "it felt a little bit overwhelming, with the impact it seemed to be having socially and culturally. I realised I was going to have to separate myself from the book".

An unexpected turn occurred outside of the plot of Asking for It. While Meadhbh was writing the script, four men including two Ulster rugby players were put on trial, two of them charged with rape. There seemed to be a lot of similarities between Louise's book and the case. An alleged gang rape perpetrated by the town's sporting heroes, topped off with online abuse: amid the evidence given in the Belfast court were WhatsApp messages that couldn't be quoted here.

The language used by the Ulster men did influence some of Meadhbh's script. It was her first real stab at locker-room talk, and when some of the males in the rehearsal room found it "a little tame", she was flummoxed. "This is all I've got!"

Both writers become impassioned when talking about the trial, in which the four men were acquitted. "Whether you think a rape occurred or not, the WhatsApp messages were just so frightening," says Louise. "I was wondering about people I knew. Would you talk about me like this?

"There has to be a zero-tolerance policy, so that that kind of laddish banter is seen as just inexcusable. It's about educating young men so that they will have the courage to say to their friends 'Do not talk like that'."

The central drama in the play is an event that isn't shown.

"I didn't put it in the book," says Louise. "To avoid the gratuitous representation of sexual violence. Also I think it's that really ignorant conflation of sex with rape. Rape is about dominance and power, it's got nothing to do with sex."

Meadhbh nods. "I wanted a play that will challenge our voyeurism. Emma blacks out. I thought it was interesting that we black out as an audience with her."

For Meadhbh, the #MeToo and Time's Up movements have shown us one important thing. "Rape isn't always this kicking and screaming affair. That, for a lot of people is a shocking realisation."

"What makes it rape in the book," says Louise, "is she says no and he keeps going."

Four novels bring Louise dangerously close to becoming a national treasure, a badass one who talks gender theory and wears PVC leggings. How is fame? She laughs. "Irish celebrity is the biggest oxymoron."

How has she changed since her Trinity College days?

"My feminism at that point was to be the cool girl," she says, "I am much more comfortable in my own skin.

"You know, studying English literature put me off wanting to write. You're reading all these incredible works of fiction, thinking, I'll never be able to attain these dizzy heights."

It was in New York that she learnt to "own your ambition", and it was her boss at Elle who encouraged her to act on that ambition.

"Sometimes it's not just talent. You have to have some talent, but it's drive, it's work ethic, it's stamina, it's the refusal to give up when times get hard. That's kind of the recipe for success."

The photographer is waiting, as is an ensemble of actors in a rehearsal room nearby. This speed date is over, time's up.

Asking for It opens at Cork's Everyman Theatre on June 15; it opens at Dublin's Abbey Theatre on November 9

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