Write On The Edge
The second of two rehearsed readings is evidence that Ransom Theatre Company's innovative writing project is paying dividends
Writer Mary Waldron has actors Abi McGibbon and Richard Dormer and acclaimed director Naomi Jones at her disposal for this very personal rumination on love, loss and religious hypocrisy, entitled Sacraments for the Living.
A fine cast and top-level director are not the play's biggest talking point, however. Nor is it the fact that Ballymena resident Waldron has never put pen to paper before, let alone written for the stage. No, the biggest, ostensibly self-evident cause for curiosity is that Mary Waldron is a woman.
Waldron is a graduate of Ransom Theatre Company's Write on the Edge programme and Sacraments for the Living is the programme’s second staged reading, following on from fellow first-timer Susan Jone’s much-lauded Transition at this year’s Pick ‘n’ Mix Festival.
A quick explanation for the confounded. Write on the Edge, now in its second year of a projected three, is a genuinely innovative programme which seeks to provide a professional platform for emerging Northern Irish female writing talent where there clearly wasn’t one before.
The programme seeks to redress the apparent gender inequality in Northern Irish theatre writing by coupling experienced theatre and writing practitioners with inexperienced female writers, giving local women the opportunity not only to tell their stories, but to learn from the experience and ultimate audience feedback.
Thus far, according to Ransom’s creative director Rachel O’Riordan, Write on the Edge workshops have attracted over 700 potential female writers from across the north of Ireland. 'To be able to bring top professionals over from England to work with these women is wonderful,' comments O'Riordan.
'So far we’ve had high profile figures such as Naomi Jones working with Mary on Sacraments for the Living; Nina Steigler, director of the Writers’ Centre at Soho Theatre; Rebecca Lenciewicz, author of the National Theatre’s Her Naked Skin; and James Grieve, associate director of The Bush. This gives women taking part the opportunity not just to write but to work within a proper, professional framework.'
O'Riordan adds that the aim with Write on the Edge has been not only to develop from scratch a local faculty of new female writing talent, but also to involve the audience in the creative process as it unfolds, giving a shared sense of ownership to the work; quite a rarity in our often precious local arts scene.
Indeed, on the evening, it is stressed very much that Sacraments for the Living is a work in progress and, following the performance, there is an opportunity for audience members to directly feedback into the production.
And what of the piece itself? The theme of Irish Catholic culture and the contradictions that lie therein is a familiar one. However, Waldron's voice is unvarnished by pointed political agenda. The story of a teenage Catholic couple whose baby dies in child birth and the subsequent disintegration of their fragile relationship asks many questions of the Catholic church without condemning outright.
The piece acknowledges the central role played, even today, of the church in rural Irish life. But Sacraments... is a far cry from the staple Magdalene Laundries-style horror we’re used to. However, the simple resignation of the protagonists to the frequently nonsensical will of the Vatican is something perhaps even more disturbing.
This sometimes uncomfortably personal reading casts its characters as victims of their own circumstance, bound to antiquated conventions that bring as much misery as they do social order.
Even when the grieving teenage Meg is challenging the parish priest about why her still-born son can’t be baptised or buried on consecrated ground, you get the all too familiar sense that she is being humoured until she gradually accepts the loss and the cruel edict of the title, that ‘Sacraments are for the living’.
While the more secular-minded audience members are no doubt frustrated at the punches pulled in the direction of the church in general and its attitude to women’s rights in particular, Waldron should be applauded for tackling the subject as she does.
Just as generations of Irish women suffered the most under the unholy auspices of the Catholic communion, equally many refused to be victims.
Back in the dark days of the early 1980s, when Sacraments... is set, people like Waldron rarely had an opportunity to ask such questions at all, let alone pose them in public. And that is, in the end, ultimately what Write on the Edge is all about. It's what real democratic theatre should be: those on the margins finally getting their chance to instigate that difficult conversation at the dinner party.