The Factory Girls Sells Out in Derry~Londonderry

Director Caitríona McLaughlin on the importance of Frank McGuinness's play to the people of Derry~Londonderry

Time was that the factories of Derry~Londonderry provided the United Kingdom with some 65% of its shirts. For years now, their vast shells have been silent and abandoned, but memories of their contribution to the economic life of the city remain undiminished.

Derry-Londonderry UK City of Culture 2013 is commemorating and celebrating this once-thriving industry with The Shirt Factory, a multi-faceted, socially engaged project, led by the distinguished artist Rita Duffy, whose often autobiographical work addresses issues of Irish identity, history and politics.

One of the cornerstones of the project is a new production at the City Factory of The Factory Girls, Frank McGuinness's play, which was originally written for Dublin's Abbey Theatre in 1982. It will be directed by Caitríona McLaughlin, who, in spite of being based for some years in London and working regularly in the United States, has not lost one semi-quaver of her melodic Donegal accent. 'I know, I know, there's no hiding it,' she laughs.

In February 2013, McLaughlin directed On the Subject of Love by Ken McCormick, a one-act drama focusing on the lurid sexual activities of Frederick Hervey, Fourth Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry in the 18th century. Later in this City of Culture year, she will direct Three Monologues by Jennifer Johnston, as well as a new play for the George Farquhar Theatre Festival.

McLaughlin hails from Buncrana in County Donegal, on the Inishowen peninsula, McGuinness's own home town and the setting for his high-octane play about a group of women, who work long, monotonous hours in a local shirt factory. Conditions may be appalling, the pay may be poor, but it is work. When faced with the threat of redundancy, they take matters into their own hands and call a lock-in.

'When I suggested this play, I was thinking of the relationship between Derry and Inishowen,' says McLaughlin. 'We would consider Derry to be our local city. Shirt making was a strong link between the two communities. The Factory Girls is the perfect play to bring those elements together.'

In spite of coming from the same neck of the woods – 'Just down the road,' as McLaughlin puts it – writer and director had never met before work on this production began. Yet the play holds a special place in her heart, as it evidently does for the people of the North West, with the Derry run having already sold out.

'On loads of levels, this job is a real gift. I know Frank McGuinness's work very well. The Factory Girls was the first play I read that was not on the school curriculum. It's great to be doing a play that looks so closely at women, particularly Donegal women. It's a real women's play, a women's world. I have an extraordinary group of women working on it, and a few good men, too.'

The Shirt Factory

 

McLaughlin, who has a science degree, trained as an actress at the Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin. As a director, she is well known for her work with both new writing and classic texts.

When she was awarded a coveted Clore Fellowship, she took herself off to New York to work with Labyrinth, a company with whom she still has close associations. She was also seconded, for a time, to the Royal Court Theatre in London, known the world over for its work with new and up-and-coming writers.

McLaughlin began her directing career in the youth sector, setting up a group in Donegal and taking charge of cross-border youth productions at The Playhouse in Derry. She was first drawn into the world of theatre by a spectacular night-time production by the Polish company Gardzienice during the city's still much talked about Impact '92 festival.

'The audience walked in a candlelit procession along the city walls,' she recalls. 'It was inspiring, incredible, a really disorientating, visceral experience. I never knew that theatre could be like that. It made me realise that was what I wanted to do. I try to create passion and energy in the plays that I work on, and no writer is better at that than Frank McGuinness.'

It is surely the mark of a great play that, regardless of the period in which it is produced, one can always find in it contemporary relevance and resonance. In the aftermath of the death of Margaret Thatcher, debate has resurfaced concerning the position of women in the workplace, trade union politics, industrial closures and redundancy – all core issues within the play.

'A lot of people don't realise that the women who worked in these factories were the main or sole earners in a family,' observes McLaughlin. 'At the height of their activity, there were about 60 factories in Derry, each employing hundreds of women. Their productivity was amazing. They were the first to start making the white collar shirt, high quality and mass produced.

'Buncrana has been put in the same position again. The whole of Inishowen has been badly hit by the recession. When farming and fishing went down, the majority of the population worked in the building industry, and we all know what's happened there.'

In the true tradition of site-specific theatrical presentation, this production will be premiered in the atmospheric surroundings of the City Factory in Patrick Street, before going on an extensive tour around Ireland.

'We have our work cut out in doing what amounts to two productions,' McLaughlin explains. 'Our designer, Maree Kearns, has done two different set designs, one for Derry, one for the tour. And the actors have to perform in the round in one venue, the City Factory, and then switch to playing in more conventional spaces.

'We are doing our best to maximise the feeling of being in this huge space. It is a great venue, the biggest factory in the city at the time. It's perfectly preserved with original tiles, iron pillars and the old windows. And the place is full of ghosts from the past – you really feel their presence all around you. It must have been an amazing sight to see this place working flat out. It's a good feeling to be bringing life back into it.'

The Factory Girls runs from April 24 – 27 in the City Factory (sold out), and goes on tour until June 1. For those unfortunate enough not to get tickets for the Derry~Londonderry run, a new play on the same subject, Tillies, by Patsy Durnin, opens in the Playhouse, Derry~Londonderry on Friday, April 19. See video below.