Macha Productions Empowers Women with Righteous Theatre

John Higgins lifts the lid on former Kabosh writers Jo Egan and Fionnuala Kennedy's new joint venture, named after the ancient goddess of Armagh

Normally when I interview people the voice on the Dictaphone is mostly mine. I’m a serial interview spoiler – I interject, I talk over, I introduce utterly unrelated topics. I can’t help myself – I forget it isn’t a conversation and I want to join in. But when I meet with the founders of new theatre company Macha Productions, this proves not to be the case. 

I sit in Jo Egan’s kitchen quietly sipping a glass of wine while she and partner Fionnuala Kennedy talk about their work and ambitions for this new endeavour with a rare passion and integrity. When I speak at all it is to pose short questions as mere departure points for another torrent of bubbling enthusiasm.

Macha has a lot to say, it seems. But I'm here to ask questions and this is my, powerfully original, opening gambit: where does the name Macha come from?

'We wanted a name that represented the women of the North of Ireland,' says Egan, ignoring her thimble of wine. 'And actually Macha is that. She is the goddess that Armagh is named after. She was a goddess of war but she was horrifically wronged by the men of Ulster and died as a result of her husband’s pride and boastfulness.

'There was something in that that sang to us. She also placed a curse on the men of Ulster that they would never think with clarity during times of conflict and we thought if we could in some way embody Macha we could lift that curse!' 

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You both worked at Kabosh, a theatre company who have done tremendous things in Northern Ireland, specifically in terms of encouraging new writing. Why did you decide to go it alone?

'I had left Kabosh Theatre because I’d always wanted to write,' answers Egan, 'and all that was happening was that I was getting involved in fundraising and everything that was going to take me away from writing!

'It was one of those things where you either do it now or you’re always going to be talking about doing it. So I asked Finn if there would be of any benefit of the two of us working together. And that’s how it came about.'

'I think we’re quite similar in terms of the kind of work we want to produce as well,' adds Kennedy. 'We both already had things either written or partially written that we wanted to bring to this project.' 

Which brings us to the inaugural productions of Macha and, given the typical even-handedness they display, there are plans to stage a project each. Kennedy’s comes first as part of Belfast's first ever 'Baby Day' on September 27, described as a 'Culture Night for babies'.

'We’re doing a production called Sure Women Have Been Doing It Since Eve, she says. 'I wanted to do a show about mothers because I personally found it difficult. I was a young mum and I found it really hard and I don’t think that women feel as if they’re able to say "This is sh*t, isn’t it?” It’s horrible!”

'So I’ve been interviewing older women about pregnancy back in the day when there was nothing for them and no support from anybody. And I’m hoping – because it’s not written yet – it’ll give a bit of comfort to mums now.'

This is typical of Kennedy’s searching approach to finding new narratives in Northern Ireland. Women’s stories in particular are something that she feels have been overlooked in the post conflict narrative.

'A lot of my work is about women because the narrative has traditionally been concerned with only one side of the story, the male side,' she continues. 'I think you can usually find a woman in a worse situation! It’s a very patriarchal society in Ulster.

'I feel weighed down, as a woman, by decisions that are being made on my behalf. We were interested in exploring what the stories are about women, about communities and how we can perhaps create new narratives.'

'And if we do want to tell new stories from new a perspective,' Egan interjects, 'that’s where they are: and it asks for different kinds of forms and different ways to tell those stories and that’s what we think is exciting.' 

Egan’s project has had a longer gestation period. After leaving Kabosh she took a degree in playwriting and the fruits of that degree are manifested here as Madame Geneva, a rip-snorting historical epic with an anthropomorphised heroine at its centre.

'Madame Geneva was what gin was called in 1700s London and it had radical effect on the populace,' she says. 'Somehow it became linked to the story of women and fallen women in particular. So if you were a gin drinker you were a prostitute or a bad mother – even today there’s the nick-name 'mother’s ruin'.

'What was happening at the same time was the Bank of England being set up and so we have the birth of capitalism as we know it. Around the same time again, they set up the first Magdalene home in London in 1758, which was used to literally 'reform' women into what they wanted women to be.'

For Egan the message of the play has resonance for a modern audience. 'These are things we are still living with today: there are perceptions of what a woman should be and how she should conduct herself. This is a story that's full of life: young people are rushing into London from all over the country, to engage in this dynamic force and, actually, gin is its fuel.

'And hopefully the play is going to reflect that. I’m really excited about Madame Geneva. It’s just going to be so theatrical!'

Sure Women Have Been Doing It Since Eve plays at Skainos Dance Studio on September 27 as part of Belfast Baby Day. Admission is free.