Woman Undone – Project Arts Centre – Review by Frank L.
Woman Undone – Brokentalkers with Project Arts Centre, Mermaid Arts Centre and LÓKAL Performing Arts
Photos by Fionn McCann
Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan of Brokentalkers have collaborated with Mary Coughlan to write the text and the lyrics of this story which tells about the early life of Coughlan. At another level, because her story is not that uncommon, it is a story about the power plays which operated with impunity and still do in homes but probably nowadays more subtly. Brokentalkers and Coughlan, in their respective fields of endeavour, have been strong voices against various societal omertas which allowed the power plays free rein.
The evening begins with four women; Alibhe Dunn, Cara Dunn, Molly O’Mahony and Muireann ni Cheannabhain, dressed as men, appearing individually on stage and explaining what is not going to be discussed about Mary Coughlan. They make no claims for themselves but as the evening progressed it became apparent that they are four very talented musicians who normally perform as a band called Mongoose. They make clear that Coughlan is the central focus of the evening. She then strides on stage dressed in a magnificent taffeta three-quarter length coat worn over a black dress. She appears to be a figure of power and confidence.
These five persons together then tell the story of Coughlan’s life and that of her immediate family. However, as the four actors are playing male characters, the acts that they portray have a particularly disturbing iniquity but sadly resonate with many stories which have been told in recent times in public enquiries and court cases. So the personal story of Coughlan remains not that unusual in Ireland. Coughlan’s early self, literally from the womb, is played by a dancer, Erin O’Reilly, whose bodily movements make apparent her vulnerability amongst the male characters which surround her. The whole ensemble is a thought-provoking and challenging use of a single-sex cast.
The set intriguingly consists of a crashed red van on one side and off centre, a raised platforn. These two elements serve many purposes. There are in addition various chairs and instruments arranged on the stage.
Valgeir Sigurðsson, an Icelandic composer, has provided a score which chimes with the story that is told. The ability of the singers and musicians is deftly employed throughout and their skill in singing in subtle harmonies adds to the power of the scenes being described. Of course, Coughlan’s presence when she moves around the stage cannot be denied but she is often an observer, sitting in a chair as she watches the events of her past unfold.
It is difficult to classify this 85-minute piece of theatre. However, this collaboration has produced an eloquent work. While the story it tells is deeply unsettling at times it generates many moments of subtlety, as abuse is portrayed with inventiveness. It deserves a wide audience throughout Ireland, urban and rural.