Monday 18 December 2017

Stage: Festival takes on the darkness of January

Act two: Eva O'Connor, seen here in My Name is Saoirse, brings new work Overshadowed to stage.
Act two: Eva O'Connor, seen here in My Name is Saoirse, brings new work Overshadowed to stage.

Maggie Armstrong

Catharsis, as we learnt at school, was what the Greeks did when they needed a good cry. They watched tragedy and wept together in enormous groups. Three millennia later, at least no one gets annoyed if you cry at the theatre. But how about the people on stage? Do actors attend the ritual?

Adam Devereux plays a troubled schoolboy, Eamonn, in Eva O'Connor's new play Overshadowed, which opened at the Tiger Dublin Fringe and moves to the Project Arts Centre before touring to London. In a cast of five, he is the only male in a play that handles the delicate topic of anorexia.

"I had a day or two when I was really feeling down, going in and out of mild depression. I'd let the girls know, spend some time on my own, let it all out, cry a little and get on with the show, because the show must go on.

"I know I'm being a bit honest but I think it's important," Adam says, to "remove this stigma, this taboo around mental health in Irish society, and just talk about it."

Overshadowed plays at First Fortnight, which is the reason we're talking about mental health while other people are still eating stale mince pies. The January festival, in time for the shortest, darkest days of the year, aims to challenge mental health prejudice through the creative arts - music, spoken word, film, theatre, Bressie, and so on.

If you would prefer to sit at home and fill out a death cert than take part in a festival about mental health, just think. What they now call 'mental health issues', and used to call 'madness' is the fire of great drama - be it King Lear's raving dementia, Blanche DuBois's glamorous unravelling at the end of Streetcar, deep depression in Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis, Medea - well, she killed her children.

The worry might be that a play is only included in a festival about mental health because it's about mental health, and hasn't been chosen for artistic merit. But you are in good hands. With her company Sunday's Child, Clare-born playwright/performer Eva O'Connor brought up teen pregnancy in My Name is Saoirse before writing Overshadowed. Both plays have picked up awards and are published by Bloomsbury.

Eating disorders, which either haunt or torture every young person growing up (trust me), haven't been presented in Irish drama like this before. Or ever really.

In the short one-act play, anorexia is personified as Caol, a slinking creature in a leotard. Played by Eva herself, Caol taunts the sufferer, Imogene (Roseanne Lynch) in rhymes: "I'll conquer control / I'll be the companion of your suffering soul". Imogene-Caol; image-gaol: anorexia even gets into characters' names.

"What we're trying to do in Overshadowed is separate the victim and the disease, to show that the disease is a lot more powerful than you would think," says Adam.

He agrees it is a hard sell: come to a play about anorexia nervosa. "The topic is quite grim and you have to walk on eggshells around it." But during the Fringe there were many curtain calls, many mothers with daughters in school kilts waiting to tell them what the show meant to them, and buckets of catharsis.

After First Fortnight, Sunday's Child take Overshadowed to Theatre 503 in south-east London. The company live in London, and Adam also moved there a year ago to train as an actor, pulling pints in on the side.

"London is so fast-paced. There are a lot of times you get lonely, you get depressed. These things happen. You go through ups and downs, we all do. And I'm starting to realise it's the way it is, I think it's always going to be there. It's a matter of being able to look after yourself.

"Working with the girls has triggered some sort of freedom to be emotionally honest. There's stigma in being a man. You have to be controlled, you have to be on top of things, you can't let your emotions go. But I think that's bullshit as well.

"Things need to be said, we need to look for help and let our friends and our family know if we are going through something. Because there's no shame in it."

Overshadowed runs at the Project Arts Centre 6 to 9 January as part of First Fortnight (

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