Abbie Spallen's Lally the Scut
Lauded playwright on the 'divide and conquer' approach to arts funding cuts in Northern Ireland, why satire is 'an absolutely vital weapon' in the fight against austerity, and her new production at The MAC
Newry-born playwright Abbie Spallen is a woman of many talents. One of them is especially effective when it comes to eyeballing those with the power to affect our lives. ‘The function of satire,’ she says, ‘is to make the comfortable uncomfortable and the uncomfortable more comfortable. You have to be brave with satire. You write about what makes you angry and you write about what irritates you.’
In her crosshairs at present, perhaps inevitably, are the swingeing budget cutbacks that continue to undermine Northern Ireland’s artists in their pursuit of expression. She contends that government is deserving of our ire. ‘I love writing it but I don’t believe that satire should be aimed at soft targets.’
Having returned to her hometown two years ago after a period of living and working in London, Spallen's time away has afforded her a valuable slant on the political scene that she did not previously possess. In her opinion, to register one's discontent, with wit and biting humour, is often the only option available in this age of grim austerity and political impasse. ‘You write about what you think is wrong and I think satire is vital, an absolutely vital weapon that we have. God knows, our votes really aren’t worth much.’
Spallen’s newest project, the colourfully titled Lally the Scut, is currently running in The MAC until May 2, a co-production with Tinderbox Theatre Company – itself a target of the Arts Council’s crippling funding reductions – that arrives at a key juncture in the cultural sector’s struggle to remain relevant, and alive, in the public consciousness.
In spite of Tinderbox’s recent 44% cut – which threatens the continued employment of its respected dramaturg, Hanna Slättne, who has been at the forefront of new writing since her appointment (Slättne championed the Lally script as soon as she read it) – the production presents an opportune moment for a defiant statement of intent.
Spallen is hopeful of a good turnout at The MAC, which has also experienced a cut. Tellingly, she says, ‘the play is about frustration and impotence at the hands of the powers that be’, and her sincere hope is that the public rallies round to support the arts even more. ‘It’s imperative that we all pull together and stand up. These cuts just seems very short-sighted.’
A former actress, Spallen’s professional career kicked off in the early 1990s. Among her notable credits was a role in the ensemble cast of John Rooney’s Permanent Deadweight for Replay, the north’s pioneering theatre-in-education company, in which she appeared alongside a group of similarly up-and-coming performers like Sheelagh O’Kane and Eileen McCloskey. And in 1995, she was cast in A Wife, A Dog and A Maple Tree, Sue Ashby’s intriguing new play for Charabanc.
Spallen fervently believes theatre to be a central forum for discussion about the health of society. ‘Obviously it has to be entertaining as well but that’s what I try to bring to my work. I think that when you shut that off, you’re left with radio phone-in shows and certain television shows. We need to explore who we are and we do that through new writing.
'I just can’t fathom why [the funding cuts are] being done. We’re being made out to seem like the other, like a load of hippies sitting in the house eating grapes on the chaise longue. It’s fundamental divide and conquer.’
Lally the Scut is being touted as a typically clever tale, although plot details remain sketchy to protect the integrity of the story. In brief, it centres on the manner in which a community pulls together when the eponymous Lally’s child goes missing. In the efforts to locate her progeny, Lally encounters a host of characters, each symbolising a different theme.
‘I like to call it a road play, where you meet person after person,’ says the writer, describing the style for which she is aiming as ‘Brechtian’.
The cast is sizeable. Indeed, it is the largest to perform on The MAC’s stage to date, an admirable accomplishment given the recent constriction of the sector’s ability to operate. The composition of the players, most of whom live and work in Northern Ireland, feels just as significant.
Spallen points out that this fact helped in pulling together an otherwise complex production. ‘It was really easy because they were all there. Eleven of 12 of them are based here. Every one of them was first choice, everybody we wanted we got, everybody was delighted to do it.’
What of the feedback, so far, from a troupe containing the likes of Roisin Gallagher, Maria Connolly, Richard Clements and Alan McKee? ‘You can tell that the cast is really into it,’ says Spallen, who sounds equally proud that she might now offer up something timely, as well as topical.
‘I’m really glad that it is a political piece. It is a state-of-the-nation piece. It is a political satire. Of all the types of plays you want when your funding is being cut, I think this is something that we are all very, very proud of.’
Well known for her fearless and creative use of language, Spallen admits that she has a fondness for the way in which people throughout Ireland form and reform their words, moulding them, imbuing them with subtext — ‘I do find a certain poetry in language and I do like to play with words. I love how we tend to end sentences in strange ways. I’m fascinated by words’ — yet she also remembers the somewhat frosty reception that has greeted her output, including 2007’s acclaimed Pumpgirl, beyond these shores.
‘America is a strange beast,' Spallen observes. 'There’s a certain portrayal of the Irish, and when you deviate from that, some people aren’t very happy with it… but we’re Northern Irish, we’re very different. Our humour is blacker, our sense of perspective is completely different. Sometimes a more stereotypical idea is expected.’ She suggests, however, that a lack of knowledge is mostly to blame: ‘Sometimes they don’t even understand the context.’
That said, Spallen has no wish to create a small story anchored in mere parochial surroundings. For all its peculiar local flavourings, Lally the Scut should be viewed through a global prism.
‘The play is set in a town but, for me, it’s not a specific town. Small town life represents all town life. I’m not the first person to do it, it’s been done in various plays: take a small town and represent the whole of the world in it. There are characters that we all recognise, to make it specific to one town is reducing it in a way.’
Spallen underlines her commitment to creating ‘types and people, through satire, that a lot of us would recognise and understand'. These are elements, she concludes, that offer to the world a crucial representation of ‘the way we think in Northern Ireland'.
Lally the Scut runs at The MAC, Belfast until 2nd May.