Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Friday 18 October 2019

'There was this notion women don't write national plays' - Irish playwright Deirdre Kinahan

Playwright Deirdre Kinahan has just made her Abbey debut. She tells Maggie Armstrong about giving starring roles to women and how she looked to her own family to breathe life into 15 strong Ballymun women

Breaking down a vortex of barriers: Deirdre Kinahan in the Abbey Theatre. Photo: Damien Eagers
Breaking down a vortex of barriers: Deirdre Kinahan in the Abbey Theatre. Photo: Damien Eagers
Eva O'Connor

Maggie Armstrong

It's really hard not to use the words "force of nature" to describe Deirdre Kinahan, the leading Irish playwright you haven't necessarily heard of.

So let's just say it like it is: Dee Kinahan, force of nature, enters the Abbey foyer in a bluster of elemental energy. 

It is days before the opening of her play The Unmanageable Sisters, a new version of Les Belles-sœurs by Québécois playwright Michel Tremblay. The big snow is forecast, and there is sleet on her boots and flowing skirt.

This debut has been a long time coming for Kinahan, who turns 50 this year. She's been produced in New York and Washington, is a grandee of the Bush and the Old Vic in London, but hasn't yet been given a stage in her national theatre. She served on the Abbey board until last year. How does a force of nature go so long unacquainted with her own main stage?

"It's complex," she begins, and the gusts of Kinahanesque insights fly forth.

"There was this notion that women don't write national plays," she says, as we take a couple of seats beneath portraits of the great men of the Irish canon.

Eva O'Connor
Eva O'Connor

"I really do believe that there's an inherent sexism towards female writers across a number of genres. Film, music, theatre."

Her play Moment was nominated for awards in London, but in Dublin it was "completely underestimated", she recalls, without bitterness but with a little good-natured indignation.

"Why is it that when a woman writes a play in a kitchen it's called a kitchen-sink drama, but when Brian Friel writes Dancing at Lughnasa it's a national play?"

The Abbey did commission a play from Kinahan a few years ago, but it was never staged. God's Hotel was based on Nuala O'Faolain's story and it's the only one of her plays that languishes as a script.

"It's a beautiful play. I might revisit it one day," she tells me.

Kinahan has written nearly 30 plays over two decades. For 12 years she ran Tall Tales Theatre Company with Maureen Collender, which had a deeply feminist mission - unfashionable at the time - to find great parts for women. In a tradition dominated by men, they faced "a vortex of barriers".

"You had a national theatre that really wasn't producing new writing. You had critics constantly elevating the more abstract, the more obscure, experimental theatre. There was this whole movement away from literary theatre, away from playwriting."

Kinahan is very much a literary playwright, whose narratives unfold behind a fourth wall. These days, with the fragmented tale-telling of Brokentalkers, Dead Centre and Enda Walsh packing out the theatres, literary plays are not so flavour of the month. Kinahan snarls (still good-naturedly): "There was a bit of a sense of - and who do you think you are, exactly? Comparing yourself to Tom Murphy?

"I think whatever is your impulse, you've got to write to that, you've got to play to the beat of your own drum."

And there was the small matter of a gaping gender inequality in Irish theatre, so trenchantly highlighted by Waking the Feminists. Women don't have starring roles in the history of Irish playwriting. For this reason, says Kinahan, "women thrived in the independent sector. They kind of created it".

But now Kinahan is avalanching the main stage with a 15-strong all-female company that includes some of our favourite dames (Marion O'Dwyer, Tina Kellegher, Lisa Lambe, to name a few). The play is directed by Abbey co-artistic director Graham McLaren.

"I really admire his politics," says Kinahan.

Sisters is set in 1973 in a damp kitchen in a Ballymun tower block. There, a group of vociferous women sit putting Green Shield Vouchers in booklets, the plan being to better their lives. "I just got into their tights and knickers and started walking around that flat, imagining what it was like," says Kinahan.

The play starts out funny, but before long we are in Magdalene Laundries territory. Even Kinahan's two teenage daughters, who saw a preview, were "quite shocked".

Kinahan, who lives in Meath, is 100pc a Dub. From Terenure, her family were working-class, or "we saved up for our Venetian blinds". Her husband, Gary, spent some time growing up in a Ballymun tower block.

She says she feels deeply for Ballymun - a community "betrayed" by Ireland. The psychological pressure of poverty is tangible in her play.

"Women don't break things. It doesn't turn into a barroom brawl, women chip away at each other, they police each other."

She has stayed true to "every beat and character" of Tremblay's cult original. But she has given Sisters a Dublin vernacular and that "cacophony" comes from her own family.

"The language that you hear on that stage, the phrases, the terminology, the heart and the tone and the timbre of it, is very much my mother, and her five sisters."

Her intelligent and artistic mother never used her gifts and there was "rage at the heart of her", says Kinahan. "My ma used to always say, 'You've got a gift, use it'. When I was a kid, I always had huge energy, I was always in trouble in school, without meaning to be. And I think a lot of artists have that energy."

The title comes from Éamon de Valera, who once described women as "the boldest and most unmanageable revolutionaries". Kinahan gets a little exercised about her founding father. "He had a really dysfunctional relationship with women and women's power, and women's rights."

She gets exercised (still, somehow, good-natured) talking about the "Catholic caliphate" that ruled Ireland until recently. "The 1940s and 1950s, that was a grim time for women in Ireland. A lot of people in Ireland suffered because we bent the knee to the bishops in the church. Legislation reflected that deeply conservative misogynous patriarchal kinda code."

Sexism is in the spotlight, with the #MeToo and Time's Up movements still raging through the news. "I don't have a #MeToo moment," says Kinahan. "I just worked with lovely men.

"But I was the boss," she says. "I set up my own company, I got the funding, I wrote my own plays, employed people, I paid their PRSI."

She has been "deeply disturbed" and "sickened" by the reports of sexual harassment in the Gate theatre, though she never worked there. "I think the story will continue until that board faces its responsibilities."

Her next play, Rathmines Road, in the Peacock later this year, will look at the objectification of women and girls, some based on her own experience ("I remember being flashed at on the way to school, I remember being flashed at in Rome. Women live with derision every day. It has got to stop.")

Later in the year, the spectacularly productive Kinahan has a children's play at the Hay festival in Meath, and Wild Sky in the Solas Nua in Washington DC.

"Art helps us not to be afraid of the dark, art helps us understand who we are. And if we all can understand things, well then maybe we can help? That's not to say you're some Mother Teresa but humanity is a beautiful thing. Plays and stories and songs and films speak across all borders and all ethnicities, art just fires something in your humanity."

The snow has come, falling in thick flakes on to Marlborough and Abbey Street. Kinahan is a blizzard all of her own, swirling with intelligence until she's out the door. That artist's energy she talks about will not abate any time soon. "If you don't focus it and plug it in," she says, "it'll eat you up, it'll kill you."

The Unmanageable Sisters is at the Abbey Theatre until April 7

Four irish women playwrights to watch in 2018

Una McKevitt

Everything McKevitt touches is intense, quick and provocative in the best way. She emerged through Pan Pan as an actor and has devised plays such as Alien Documentary (now touring abroad) and directed Joanne McNally’s brilliant Bite Me, which found the funny in a devastating eating disorder. Rumour has it McKevitt’s next play, Madhouse, is coming to the Abbey, taking her safely from the fringes to the big time.  

Meadhbh McHugh

Her promising and truly literary debut Helen and I, about the bitter-sweet relationship between sisters, scored a big production with Druid for the Dublin Theatre Festival. Next, Galway-born, New York-based McHugh is adapting Louise O’Neill’s novel about a rape, Asking for It, for a big Landmark Productions show playing in Cork’s Everyman (June 11 – 23) and the Abbey (November 9 –24).

Veronica Dyas

A Dubliner and community activist (and sister and collaborator of Grace), Dyas’s work is hard-hitting and political yet personal. Her new show, Here and Now (I Live Here Now), explores the housing crisis through her own experience of ending up in mortgage arrears (and played this week as part of this year’s St Patrick’s Festival, Where We Live). The play is directed by Amy Conroy and produced by the redoubtable THISISPOPBABY.

Eva O’Connor

Eva O'Connor

An actor and writer of dark, rhyming plays of a confessional kind, Clare-born O’Connor (inset) has already starred in the BBC3 adaptation of her play Overshadowed. With her company Sunday’s Child, O’Connor’s plays tackle the burning issues facing women and girls. My Name is Saoirse was about crisis pregnancy and her latest, Maz and Bricks, which is set at a Repeal the Eighth demonstration, tours 11 Irish venues in April and May and is produced by Olivier-winning Fishamble.

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