Soaking In Mydidae
Debut director Rhiann Jeffrey on Prime Cut's Irish premiere of Jack Thorne's candid double-hander about marital tribulations and child loss
You have to hand it to Prime Cut, it's never been a company for taking the easy way out. From its earliest beginnings as Mad Cow, it has brought to the stage a long list of outstanding plays, rarely, if ever seen on these shores.
Sharply focused, testing double-handers have become something of a speciality - from the Russian army deserter and his downtrodden wife in Ariel Dorfman’s A Place With the Pigs, the predatory female hostage and her terrified male victim in Dennis Kelly’s After the End, the solitary Canadian backwoodsman and an unexpected visitor wearing a wedding dress in Cindy-Lou Johnson’s Briliiant Traces … the list goes.
Now, in an Irish premiere for the Ulster Bank Belfast International Arts Festival, the company is bringing us Mydidae, another double-hander whose theme and setting are as private, as exposing, as personally forbidden as it is possible to imagine.
A married couple retreat to their bathroom, where they perform the usual bodily functions reserved for this space, eventually submerging their bodies and their troubles in a bath full of soothing hot water.
Taking its title from a family of stinging flies, who thrive in an arid climate, the audience is invited to intrude on alien conditions, to become flies on the wall in witnessing the unravelling of a once-loving marriage.
Writer Jack Thorne’s unflinching focus on issues of domestic abuse and child loss presents massive challenges to director, actors and audience alike. Even the most experienced director might think twice about taking on such a piece and presenting it to the notoriously conservative Northern Ireland public.
But Rhiann Jeffrey, who graduated from Queen’s University just a year ago, is confident and resolved at the prospect of Mydidae being her professional directing debut. Far from it. She chose it herself.
Jeffrey is currently the emerging artist selected for Prime Cut’s Reveal program, which supports up-and-coming theatre practitioners. Like the show’s producer Stephen Coulter, she is the recipient of a 2015 BBC Performing Arts Fellowship, for which she was nominated by the company’s artistic director Emma Jordan.
'There are very few opportunities for emerging artists in Northern Ireland and even less money,' says Jordan. 'The Reveal programme gives these artists an opportunity to explore their own ideas, develop their craft and, in the case of Rhiann Jeffrey, direct their first professional production with the mentorship of experienced artists and facilitators.
'This production is entirely produced, directed and designed by early stage theatre artists and in the current stagnant arts climate it offers a beacon of hope for the future.'
Tender in age and professional experience Jeffrey may be, but her calm, analytical approach suggests that this ground-breaking production is in safe hands. 'Yes, the play was my choice,' she says. 'Nobody made me do it!
'We looked at around 40 plays in total. I was keen to do a double-hander. I thought this one was the most appropriate for the times we live in, as it deals with themes that are not often talked about on stage.
'The woman has suffered a miscarriage, a stillbirth, and we join her and her husband at the time of the first anniversary of that terrible loss.
'All too often in life, attention is almost entirely focused on the woman, while men are often neglected. Aftercare for men is extremely limited in Northern Ireland and not enough is done to alleviate the pain and damage they have suffered from such a tragedy.
'This couple have never spoken about what happened. They simply don’t know how to approach the subject. The result is that the man feels emasculated and helpless. There is no foundation between them for dialogue and the fall-out from that situation is shocking.
The prolific Thorne, who writes widely for film and television as well as for the stage, is arguably best known as one of the original writers on Skins, a show whose popularity has become permanently attached to his professional identity.
'There was a while when it was just Jack Thorne, open brackets, Skins, close brackets,' he lamented in an interview for The Stage newspaper. He has also written the highly-acclaimed This Is England '86/'88/'90. But even with his track record for dark realism, being commissioned to write a play set in a bathroom evidently carried its own particular set of demanding dramatic conventions.
'It’s a brilliant and challenging script,' says Jeffrey. 'The premise is, by definition, intimate and private. The characters are revealing much more than their bodies. We are being invited in to something we would never, ever bear witness to.
'As a director, I am interested in seeing people in that vulnerable state, literally baring everything, from flesh to souls. People will be shocked - and they should be. They will be very, very close to this couple and their difficult relationship.
'They won’t be able to get any further back in their seats. I want to challenge audiences in this live performance environment, to make them feel uncomfortable as onlookers to a whole network of emotions and responses.'
A major part of her work in the rehearsal room has been to build an atmosphere of complete trust between the actors – Julie Maxwell and Matthew Forsythe – and herself. Maxwell is a highly regarded actress, best known for her work in comedy and theatre-in-education. Forsythe most recently gave a nicely judged performance as the hapless American journalist who falls for the charms of the torch singer Sally Bowles in Bruiser’s dazzling production of Cabaret.
Jeffrey feels that these roles offer both of them the opportunity to go where they have not gone before, to stretch themselves and extend their scope as actors. 'We are building a fantastic sense of trust in the rehearsal room, between Julie and Matthew and between them and me. We have to.
'The play asks such big questions of us all, we can only get it right if we trust one another absolutely. But I do want to stress that this play is not sexy or gratuitous. The sexual content is purely functional. This is not bedroom intimacy but bathroom intimacy.'
The timing of the production’s opening could not be more apposite, coming just five days after National Infant and Pregnancy Loss Awareness Day on October 15. Prime Cut hopes that the play will be a powerful tool in helping to create wider public awareness of the effects of pregnancy loss.
It is an issue which should be of major concern, for, according to the Miscarriage Association, more than one in five pregnancies ends in miscarriage; an estimated quarter of a million in the UK each year.
Mydidae runs at The MAC from October 20 - 25 as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast International Arts Festival. For more information and bookings visit www.themaclive.com.