Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Tuesday 23 April 2019

'There was an era of Irish theatre that was like an episode of Mad Men'

Playwright Sonya Kelly talks to Maggie Armstrong about the gender imbalance in Irish theatre, photobombing Prince Albert of Monaco and deciding to elope

Theatre in her genes: Sonya Kelly is the niece of the late actor Frank Kelly. Picture by Al Higgins

Maggie Armstrong

In the second play in Sonya Kelly's Furniture - "three short plays about tables, chairs and people" - a couple who meet on a dating app try, unsuccessfully, to live together. An initial problem is that their furniture doesn't match. Shouting reaches an impasse in the slur, from one woman to another, that "you ordered me on the internet!"

Your plays are reassuring because they suggest that everyone might be just slightly dysfunctional, I suggest to Kelly, and she nods.

"When you meet someone new, you're auditioning for the role, you give off a veneer. Sooner or later, somebody's going to throw up in a toilet, or hand you half your bill. That's what real relationships are."

Weeks before her play's revival, Kelly is wearing dark clothes and a black baseball cap, sitting on a piece of hotel furniture. She keeps a leather-bound notebook on the table next to her, occasionally adding something to it. She is vigorous, interesting company, and all of her observations are considered and naturally ornate, like things you could take home and put on your mantelpiece.

On writing, she parts liberally with aphorisms: "Don't chase an opportunity. Chase a standard, and see what comes out," and "You show up and fail. You have to go to work, every day", "As a writer I've learned you've got to keep reading and reading and reading".

It's no wonder she is very busy, with a new play for Druid and "some TV here and abroad" in the pipeline.

Kelly can talk in 10 ways in one minute on a subject and its conceptual possibilities. Take, for instance, furniture. Furniture is "an indices to a value system", "an emblem of respectability", a "component to the emotional value of an incident". Furniture "marks out your territory. Part of the condition of being human is negotiating your relationship with territory".

"Every meme on the internet is about this Japanese woman that calls to people's houses and throws their crap out," she adds, referencing the popularity of pint-sized tidying guru Marie Kondo.

In each of the three plays in Furniture, things come between people and cause disruption - and, in some cases, prompt a tragic ending, as for dating app victims Dee and Stef.

"When someone says I don't like your furniture, that's the same as saying I don't like you," says Kelly.

Being the playwright in a company is a new departure for this accomplished performer, who grew up in Blackrock, Co Dublin, and is a niece of the late actor Frank Kelly (Father Jack in Father Ted). Her stage career began during her college years in the Gate, where she played "maids and silly daughters", and continued in the International Bar, then on RTÉ sketch show The Savage Eye as David McSavage's foil.

Kelly had a successful international career on the stand-up circuit, a world she describes as "crazy", "gladiatorial" and "unfunded". She later exited stage left, and came into her own through her memoir-style plays, The Wheelchair on my Face - about being what she has described as "pathologically myopic" as a child and having to wear "joke-shop glasses" - and the tremendous How to Keep an Alien: a Story about Falling in Love and Proving it to the Government, about trying to secure an Irish visa for her girlfriend ("A fling with an alien becomes a thing with an alien becomes a ring with an alien" is one memorable quote).

"If society is a labyrinth," says Kelly, "humour is a trap door and a passage way in. Sometimes humour is considered the poorer cousin of drama. I don't know if it deserves that, really."

Her performing style is impish, slapstick, authoritative and deadpan all at once, but don't expect to see her on stage anytime soon because now it's all about writing.

"I'm in this for the long game. I wrote this play because I wanted to up my skills, chip into new territory."

And she wanted to hear an actor read her lines to perfection. In spring 2016, Kelly went to Paris, having been awarded a residency in the Centre Cultural Irlandais. "I wanted to write great new parts for actresses," she says. "No cardigans, or flesh-coloured tights, or 'when is he coming home?'"

In Paris, she taught herself dialogue, reading Aristotle and Ibsen. Six weeks into the residency there was no play, and she found herself walking the city alone a lot. One evening she went to a classical recital in the Irish Embassy, put on to raise funds for the repair of Irish furniture-designer Eileen Gray's villa in the south of France.

"Prince Albert of Monaco was there. I have a photobomb with Prince Albert," she says with amazement. There was an Eileen Gray chair on exhibition, and when Sonya leaned in for a closer look, she was told not to touch the chair.

"Don't touch it," Ed in the first play in Furniture tells his wife Alex, when she leans in to an Eileen Gray chair.

"I ran home, and started writing dialogue," says Sonya. She was, she says, fuelled by something she only later recognised was anger.

Because if Prince Albert had touched the chair, he would probably not have been told not to touch it? "He certainly would not have," says Kelly. "Warnings like that have a subconscious subtext of status." Within 10 days, she had the first draft of her first play written for characters - and two years later, it had its première by Druid at the Galway Arts Festival.

"Anger is important," Kelly says sharply. "Was it Johnny Lydon in the Sex Pistols who said 'anger is an energy'? If you harness it and use it, and aim it at the right target, and hit it, something will fall over. So it's useful."

And Furniture passes the Bechdel test, in that two women have a whole scene together without mentioning a man. "Yes," she says. "I put it through the machine and it came out. Audiences have a hunger for Bechdel-test-passing work."

It isn't entirely coincidental that Kelly wrote the play in summer 2016, a few months after the controversy at Dublin's Abbey theatre over gender balance which became #WakingTheFeminists.

"I was becoming aware of the bizarre lopsidedness in gender in theatre," says Kelly. "It's funny, when you look back. There was an era of Irish theatre that was like an episode of Mad Men. You wonder, how did women put up with that, and then you remember, I was in Mad Men.

"I can't believe I still live in the Ireland that I grew up in. I can't believe it. I was born not long after it was illegal for women to do certain jobs. The marriage bar was lifted in 1973, I was born in 1974. And now I'm a gay, married person."

In the midst of her discovery by Druid, Kelly pulled off the best coup de théãtre in her showbiz record to date. She put a ring on the aforementioned alien's finger.

In December 2018, she went to a Druid reading of the play. She left early, saying she had to go to a wedding in Galway. She then eloped with partner Kate and they spent the night in Ashford Castle, Co Mayo. "Even in the 1990s, when all my friends were coming out, it didn't dawn on us that we were the subject of prejudice at a systemic level because we couldn't get married. We just hoped that everyone would speak to us."

"It's special," she says, glancing at her hands.

Only the waiters at breakfast the following day knew they were married. "I just wanted to be married. No fuss," she says. "Theatre is all the attention I need."

Druid's production of Sonya Kelly's 'Furniture' tours 13 venues around the country starting March 20 in the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire. See www.druid.ie

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