Flesh and Blood Women
Three plays 'beautifully refract' off each other to show the changing experiences of women
Green Shoot’s new production, Flesh and Blood Women – Untold Stories of Belfast Women is a series of three plays by Brenda Murphy, Dawn Purvis and Jo Egan.
On a beautifully painted set, designed by Chris Hunter, we see an illustrated map of Belfast, with Napoleon’s nose in one corner, Black Mountain in the other, the Royal Botanical Gardens and then, across the bottom, a backlit silhouette of the Belfast skyline.
Over all of this the largely female Grand Opera House audience – who bring in their drinks and chat until curtain up – inadvertently become part of a soundscape of voices, conceived by composer Una Monaghan. So, as we settle into our seats, we catch various colloquial phrases: ‘She’s a wee smiler…'
And so the colourful Belfast demotic of the plays is established, and reinforced again in the interval, when lines that seemed random on first hearing are suddenly more significant.
The first of the three plays is Two Sore Legs, a monologue by Brenda Murphy, which features one Bridget bursting into life ironically beside her own coffin, telling us about her recent death. Bridget is played by Maria Connolly, who also plays the full cast of this extraordinary story.
Murphy’s play is autobiographical, based on the experiences of her mother, who had 11 children by a married man who lived nearby. The narrator's voice (Murphy's voice) is angry and mad, her mother softer, more feminine, but raging in her own way against the priests who tell her, after she loses two of her children in tragic circumstances, that God wanted her babies. ‘Nobody wanted my babies more than me.’
The title of the play is derived from the playwright’s own response as a child when told that her mother ‘had a sore leg’ – a euphemism for childbirth – and promptly announced that she must have had ‘two sore legs’ when she gave birth to twins.
Murphy captures perfectly the quick wit and energy of Belfast speech, whether of the mortified granddaughter taken to a funeral parlour on the Falls Road by her granny to pick out a coffin as if it was a new suite, the drunken father whose words become more deliberate to mask his drunkenness, the bravado of the seducing adulterer, or the sharp-tongued gossips affronted by her unmarried state.
This play, like the others, walks a fine line between honest representation and caricature, which is an issue when writing Belfast speech. Belfast people are naturally funny, and so it can be difficult to balance the pathos and bathos, the comedy and tragedy. But Murphy generally does so.
Bridget has style, strength and originality – we know women like this in Belfast who carve out a rich life from very little. Two Sore Legs is a paean to such women and a celebration of the changed times in which Bridget's daughter can write her story, though it seems to lose its focus a little and ends mid-narrative after she marries a different man – as if that life was somehow less interesting, though we suspect it is not.
The plays are performed chronologically, so that the second, by Dawn Purvis, takes place during the Worker’s Party strike of 1974, as seen through the eyes of a child. Kerri Quinn, who plays Lisa, never seems to stand still – constantly skipping with the sheer joy of being alive, whatever is happening around her.
The set is now the street again, this time separated off from the city with a line of bunting and the suggestion of a barricade, but it is a safe place where people know each other well. Privacy is firmly demarcated by the closing of the door, a necessity in over-populated communities.
Everything we see in this play we see at child-level, and the title, Picking Worms – an allusion to hoking worms up out of the hard city earth – conveys that sense of being smaller, of holding everything up to close examination, even if not fully understanding it.
This play is also autobiographical. Dawn Purvis, a former independent MLA, has spoken of her memory of Belfast women to whom other women would go when they needed help with unwanted pregnancies, and this street has Granny Benson, who gossips on her doorstep and enforces community values: that no one will be a strikebreaker, a phrase that, once taken from its context, fascinates the child for its blocky onomatopoeic quality.
Purvis implies that, by this time, woman did not perform abortions themselves, but acted as a middle-women for a man who would. Writers have written of the same thing on the Falls Road, debunking the idea that this need and its being met is something new and unspeakable. This part of the story may speak to the childhood experience that influenced Purvis’s role as the current Programme Director of Marie Stopes in Northern Ireland.
The language of Purvis's play is as full of colour and as energetic as the first, and the staging uses some interesting effects: the barricade men are implied by scarves or coats on brooms, a fire in the street by an eruption of yellow and orange cloth.
The third play, Sweeties by Jo Egan, takes us to the present day and in some sense is the most hard-hitting. The open street life of previous times is gone, and stark lighting implies what goes on behind some of the cosy shop and house fronts.
Here Kerri Quinn plays Tracy who, when we meet her, sits in a sofa by a street window with what we first think is perhaps her child or her younger sister – actress Kat Reagan dressed like the child of the previous play.
Tracy’s sister Jen arrives to take her to a funeral and, as things progress, we find out that the funeral is of the girl beside her on the couch, her childhood friend Paula. And so we’ve come back to the first play, where the dead are alive and talking. Hence, all three plays beautifully refract off each other.
What unfolds in this play is the story of what might have happened to a child like Lisa if she had been asked in for ‘sweeties’ by a man like Pa Devitt, who began abusing Paula when she was 12. In the narrative, the nurse sister, born much later and so spared the life that Tracy had, pushes her sister to retrace the chronology of the abuse to discover if she herself was also subject to it.
Quinn’s performance is compelling, extraordinary. When we first meet her she has the lank unwashed hair, pyjamas and dressing gown of the depressed and agoraphobic and then, in the process of recounting her story, she first transforms into a woman dressed for a funeral by her sister and then, as she comes to the crux of the abuse story, she smears her newly-applied red lipstick so that it becomes the down-turned mocking smile of a clown.
Egan’s writing is harsher, the language cutting and crude, but we are ready for it by then, and as Tracey describes the abuse, the ‘fucks’ of her speech disappear as though the spoken version of what is done to her friend makes the more flippant use of the word redundant.
From a technical point of view, it is a pity, though understandable, that the actresses took a bow at the end of each play. Arguably it would have enhanced the sense of the plays’ unity, of their working off each other, to have waited and had one curtain call at the end.
Everyone involved in this production is female – Green Shoot’s attempt, they say, to highlight the absence of women from the creative side of theatre in Northern Ireland, be it writing, set and costume design, lighting and sound design, which is laudable.
It also says, crucially, that there are still stories to be told, stories in particular that have fallen through the cracks of the ‘Troubles’ narrative, stories that that narrative has in fact hidden, and women will have an important role to play in telling them.
Flesh and Blood Women runs in the Grand Opera House, Belfast until May 24, then tours to Strule Arts Centre, Omagh on May 28, Roe Valley Arts & Cultural Centre, Limavady on May 29, Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick on May 30, and the Craic Theatre, Coalisland on May 31.