There's a Train-a-Comin'

Rough Magic's new musical is steaming towards Belfast, recreating the radical journey made by women in protest of Ireland's ban on birth control

They act as if we’re second class

They can stop us now or let us pass

Either way we’ve proved the law’s an ass

And we won’t bow down today.

Ever since the Lumiére brothers’ puffer terrified the first Parisian cinemagoers, or Lenin demanded all power to the soviets at the Finland station, radical change has been signalled by the arrival of trains. And a train that pulled into Dublin’s Connolly station in May 1971 might have been more dramatic than most.

Contraception in the Republic of Ireland had been illegal since 1935. In protest against the ban on birth control — the pill in particular — members of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement had travelled to Belfast on that May morning to buy contraceptives and openly bring them back across the border. In a remarkable media coup, they were followed by television crews from America, Japan and Ireland, and were met on their return by supporters and opponents and embarrassed guards and customs officials.

This epic publicity stunt has been brought to the stage as The Train, a piece of musical theatre from Dublin’s Rough Magic Theatre Company. With the book and lyrics by Arthur Riordan (Improbable Frequency) and music composed by Bill Whelan (Riverdance), it steams into the MAC on April 19, after a world premiere in Limerick and a run at Project Arts Centre as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2015.

As she prepares to bring the show north, I ask director Lynne Parker if it seemed paradoxical to create a world where Belfast might be seen as a place of progress and liberation? Was there an age-of-innocence perspective on the story of the contraceptive train?

She agrees that there was a sense that the north was a kind of ‘sanctuary’. But of course ‘the province is in the middle of a war’ and in some ways the women were the innocents. ‘They didn’t quite know the rules,’ she says. You needed a prescription to buy the pill, so they bought aspirin – lots of aspirin - instead. And condoms, 'although condoms hadn't been in the plan, they were considered too phallocentric!'

The Train

‘But they knew the point was to make the point,’ and that the authorities on the platform and media audiences wouldn't know the difference. And so the blow was struck.

What’s in store for Belfast audiences? An eight-strong cast and live band deliver a jazzy, train-rhythm take on this watershed moment in the relations between church and state. The music is contemporary rather than of the '70s: this isn't a period piece.

Riordan brought the idea to Rough Magic and, according to Parker, ‘knowing Arthur, it was never going to be the usual approach to political theatre.’ An Irish Times review speaks of ‘playfulness’ and ‘precision’ in the direction, and Riordan uses an interesting phrase in an interview with the Irish Examiner — how he ‘can’t resist picking at the fabric.’ This clearly resonates with Parker.

Irish theatre has been shaken up by an energetic response to sexism in the industry. #WakingTheFeminists was a grassroots campaign calling for equality for women across the Irish theatre sector, ignited when in autumn 2015 the Abbey Theatre’s programme to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising included only one play written by a woman.

This immediately sparked furious online response, followed rapidly by an outpouring of angry testimonies highlighting the chronic underrepresentation of the work of women not just at the Abbey but throughout the Irish theatre sector. The campaign soon gained huge international attention and support, was covered widely in the media, and drove issues of gender equality to the forefront of discussions in the cultural sector.

Irish Times 1972

Archive photo from the Irish Times, 1971

In the context of Waking the Feminists, is it odd that Rough Magic’s response is the work of two blokes? ‘Well, who says blokes can’t be feminists?’ Parker responds. And besides, ‘the story was created by the women themselves.' ‘Rough Magic has a proud tradition of commissioning female writers’ that long predates Waking the Feminists.

The company was founded in 1984. Based in Dublin, it regularly performs at Project Arts Centre and tour work in Ireland, the UK and beyond. On the Rough Magic website Parker writes that ‘a strong theatre sector is necessary for our growth as a modern democracy.’ Asked to talk about the democratic value of the artform, Parker is adamant that theatre is vital to a democratic society — a forum for debate that doesn’t suffer from the cliches and hypocrisies of other arenas.

There’ll be opportunities for Belfast audiences to take part in after-show debates and discussions when The Train arrives at the MAC. And in the aftermath of an election in which reproductive rights issues played no small role, and with struggles around the eighth amendment in the background, Parker is clear about what Belfast audiences should take from the show. 'The issue of reproductive rights is a very live — and complicated - one. But the principle of self-determination is absolute, and the interference of church and state in women’s bodies is unacceptable. There’s a need for resistance and protest.’

And then, ‘If it can happen with fun and sparkle, all the better!’

The Train pulls into the MAC in Belfast on April 19 and departs April 23. There are shows at 3.00pm and 7.45 pm, with tickets priced £12.50 - £25, although if you’re aged 16 -24 you can pick up a £5 ticket for this show on presentation of a valid ID. Book now via www.themaclive.com.