Wednesday 16 October 2019

The Seamster's Daughter: A national play that teases out its dark conundrums


Three strong women: Aoife O’Sullivan, Úna Crawford O’Brien and Rachel Pilkington
Three strong women: Aoife O’Sullivan, Úna Crawford O’Brien and Rachel Pilkington

Katy Hayes

The theatre may well be the best artistic medium in which to tease out complex moral questions, primarily because in embodying humans on stage, you expand the possibilities of empathy. Thus, even people who have done the unforgivable can be given an essential humanity. Playwright Jimmy Murphy's new work for Glass Mask Theatre dives head first into this question of forgiving the unforgivable. The shape of the writing is influenced by big American theatre moralists like Arthur Miller and August Wilson. Murphy creates a large family drama in a small backyard.

Nan (Úna Crawford O'Brien) and her daughter Ali (Rachel Pilkington) are poised on the verge of change as Ali's daughter Megan (Aoife O'Sullivan) reaches adulthood and prepares to fly the nest. Megan has lived her life in the belief that she is the product of a drunken one-night-stand and her mother cannot remember who her father was. She is naturally chippy about this issue and trouble getting a passport has brought matters to a head.

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In fact, Megan was conceived through rape, and her grandmother forced Ali to carry the baby to term; this information emerges as Megan persists in pushing her mother to reveal more. The bombshell lands a few days before Megan is due to head off for a gap year in New York. Being young and rebellious, she cannot resist tracking down the perpetrator of this crime, the progenitor of her existence. Terrific performances all round push the complexities of the scenario to their various limits. The scenes where Megan finally meets her father (Michael Ford-FitzGerald), who works as a ladies' dressmaker, are electric. The actors have the confidence and control to pitch voices low; at times you can hear a pin drop.

Running at over two-and-a-half hours, the play vigorously teases out its dark conundrums, painting a portrait of three generations of loving, coping women. The moral questions surrounding abortion, debated so vigorously last year during the referendum on the 8th Amendment, get a good grilling. This is a national play about a key subject that has tormented and divided the country for decades. The drama is built on the theatrical experience of catharsis.

No designer is credited and production is rudimentary. Murphy, who also directs, has somehow managed to squeeze his huge play into the cramped space of The Boys' School at Smock Alley. This is a courageous and morally complex script, delivered by fine actors; the essential building blocks of first-rate theatre.

The Seamster’s Daughter - Smock Alley Boys’ School, Dublin  Until May 4

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