Tuesday 23 January 2018

Stage: Wrestling with politics... and taking out the swear words for the Russians

Roll call: Maeve O'Mahony, who stars in Jericho
Roll call: Maeve O'Mahony, who stars in Jericho

Chris McCormack

'It's called a 'Black Hole'," explains actor Maeve O'Mahony, ably talking about computer science on her lunch break. "When a digital instrument becomes outdated, the information stored on it gets lost."

Next to her, director Claire O'Reilly nods in agreement. Their company Malaprop Theatre, about to première its new play Jericho, have already made two enlightening works about humans and technology. They seem to do their research.

Maeve and Claire met in Trinity College. "I started out studying natural sciences," deadpans Maeve. "I wanted to become a human geneticist. Then I started seeing the Trinity Players' shows. Then I dropped out of science."

"The impeccably high standard of Players," quips Claire. Maeve thinks back: "They were probably shite, but I hadn't seen any experimental theatre before that."

Claire, fast and precise like a well-aimed bolt of lightning, tells me her story. "Mine was more of a natural route. I was a performer. Maeve and I did a few shows together in college and then I started directing. I just wanted to take the reins - I'm too bossy."

"That's true," confirms Maeve, "she also hated learning her lines."

As members of Trinity Players, they got cast in a new play by their peer Dylan Coburn Gray. Boys and Girls, written in melodious verse, follows four twentysomethings on a night out in Dublin, caught either in stagnant relationships or seeking the thrill of intimacy with someone new. The play seemed to set a new standard for honesty in speaking about their generation.

"For me, it was the first time I saw it articulated in that way," says Maeve. "There was certainly an awareness that it was representative of many people," adds Claire. "Those scenarios and thought processes that we discussed, I think we knew that we were spot on, that these were poetic versions of conversations we had in real life."

Also unprecedented was the play's demand. After a strong response at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2013, Maeve and Claire found themselves on an international tour before graduation. How was the script's ear for Irish slang and erotic detail received in Moscow?

"The translation was a bit off," says Claire. "The opening line in Boys and Girls is 'Man's best friend? Google Chrome incognito'. But in Russia they don't have the phrase 'Dog is man's best friend' or even Google Chrome incognito mode so the line was: 'Better than a dog? The internet'."

"The nuances were a little lost," Maeve tells me. "Legally you're not allowed to swear in Russia [in plays] so instead of translating our swear words into Russian swear words, we had to use silly swears. We were commonly talking about 'prostitutes', which really changes the meaning. In New York, it was a bit more understood."

When Claire was preparing for her final year project in 2015, she cast Maeve and their friend Breffni Holahan to star in a new play about a woman and her robot companion. Coburn Gray came on board, and along with producer Carla Rogers, production manager John Gunning and designer Molly O'Cathain, a company seemed to form. Claire feels she benefits from the way they work ("There was a long time when Breffni's robot character was going to be a hoover").

The company has an immense Google Drive of research, and in the rehearsal room they search for ways to translate factual information into theatrical conceit, often through improvisation. Their work so far has often concerned digital culture. Coburn Gray's 2016 play BlackCatfishMusketeer even had a character called Internet who playfully prescribed emojis and website links. Where do the company stand on technology? Is it good or bad?

"Technology is happening," assures Claire. Maeve agrees: "It's kind of an inevitability so it's good to stay on top of that and be positive about what it could mean."

"There's definitely a particular type of theatre and message we've made but it's not necessarily intentional," says Claire. "It's all sci-fi that's not sci-fi: projections of the future rooted in the now. That's basically what we're doing - lo-fi sci-fi."

Jericho, described in a press release as 'an original new piece about our post-truth world' is a commission by Bewley's Café Theatre. "We were approached by Bewley's to make a show about the world, society, politics - they left it very open-ended," says Maeve.

"It's actually a difficult thing because you don't want to make a straightforward political show, especially right now when everything is changing so quickly. You don't want it to be outdated by the time you put it up. So we started talking about pro-wrestling."

What could be the connection between politics, pro-wrestling and, furthermore, the city of Jericho in the Palestinian Territories? "Initially it was about the city and its importance as an ancient city in history," says Claire. "But then the connotations with the wrestler Chris Jericho brought us down a completely different path so now it's about wrestling as well. We're using it as an allegory for what's been going on."

"There are so many parallels between the pro-wrestling world and what happens in politics," says Maeve. "All the ideas of pretence, playing characters, and things not being real but people not really caring - they all lend to political study. And I get to wear a singlet."

Jericho is at Bewley's Café Theatre at Powerscourt from Monday until March 4.

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