Flesh and Blood by Dawn Purvis, Brenda Murphy and Jo Egan, Thursday 29 May, Roe Valley Arts Centre, Limavady, 8pm

Breaking the Silence in Flesh and Blood Women

One of our Youth Arts Correspondents, Kendra Reynolds, reviews Flesh and Blood Women, a theatre production staged by Green Shoot Productions at our venue on 29 May 2014.

Walking into the auditorium few people have arrived but voices appear to echo from the ceiling and bounce off walls to the ears of those who eagerly (and also vocally) take their seats – a blend of past and present that is a dominant characteristic of the play to follow.

The audience I note is mostly composed of very sophisticated looking people, the feminist advertising of the play throwing up a predictably female dominated audience with a few rather reluctant looking husbands thrown in. However, perhaps the main indication of the quality of this stunning trilogy and its universal appeal to humanity – that actually cuts across limiting labels such as gender, class, or religion – is proven in the attitude progression of the man sitting behind me: clearly dragged along by his wife, the ending of the first play saw her question “Well, it was great wasn’t it?!” (clearly a hangover from an argument begun at home an hour or so earlier) answered with the rather subdued acknowledgment of “Aye, it was definitely alright now” (excuse the Limavady accent!). This same man ended up applauding so enthusiastically and being so caught up in the emotion of the actions on stage that by the poignant ending line – “Let’s go” – his empathic sigh reached my ears as the only sound in the room.

I admit entering this play as a student researching gender with many preconceived notions in my head about how to write a feminist slanted review and left thinking ‘But it’s so much more than that!’. I then went into meltdown mode worried about how I’d capture the effect it had on me in one short review and was corrected by a friend for falling into the safety of writing about it too ‘academically’. This play couldn’t be limited by such a cold dissection, after all, haven’t writers struggled to capture even one little truth in words for centuries!

Only the emotions felt by the audience after the performances of these amazing actresses can do the plays, and the truths they harbour, justice. For, whilst the female angle of this play (the first production created by an all women team in Northern Ireland) is both powerfully and beautifully done, it delves much deeper than the surface of a feminist manifesto, asking us instead to reflect personally on our own lives and stories. As the dead Paula asks (for both herself and the audience) in the mind of her mentally ill friend: “So what happens in my life? Do I get married? Have kids? Am I happy?”.

F&BW - Picking Up Worms 2 Kerri Quinn

Whilst I felt extremely moved by the end of this play, it’s sad concluding line “Let’s go” indicated to me not only a goodbye in the form of a funeral but a wake up call to get a move on and live our fleeting lives like the best story that could ever be told. As Bridget’s opening line in ‘Two Sore Legs’ states, “I died today”, before relating the events of her life and adding hers to the ghostly voices that had echoed as our welcome. One Margaret Atwood quote rang in my head as I walked outside in a daze of thought: “In the end we all become stories”.

Whilst it appears like “The Troubles was all anybody talked about then”, they form only a backdrop to this trilogy with the Belfast map in the background of the set highlighting how this production zooms in from an impersonal overview of history to individual realities: as the lights come up all we see is this map, before they dim and focus with intensity on the small name plate of Bridget’s coffin for Brenda Murphy’s emotional opening installment ‘Two Sore Legs’ (featuring a dead woman relating her life story).

Awed by Maria Connolly’s explosive monologue, Bridget’s legacy also lingers visually for the remaining two plays with her coffin set to the left of the stage: a literal placing of these female stories side by side to garner a collective female history for Belfast during these difficult times – histories left out of the record books in favour of the grand male-dominated ‘Troubles’ narrative. For these heroines have different troubles: religious restrictions, a sexual double standard, children to feed and work to attend/or not to attend in the case of the Ulster Workers Council Strike of 1974 which forms the backdrop to Dawn Purvis’ ‘Picking Worms’. Yet this is all done with a strong undercurrent of humor, a reflection of the stoic nature of these women in the face of several dilemmas.

Whilst I was moved profoundly by Bridget’s broken state as she lay upon the ground in an agony of emotion, her true sassiness returned periodically in her tongue-and-cheek humor: “And you know I told her, I said ‘You’re gonna find me dead some day behind that door. And she did. [Pauses to reflect]. God love her”. Even her hard-faced father reveals his humanity as, like most of us, he uses humour as a coping mechanism in a harsh reality, telling Bridget’s first daughter that the midwife is there only to help her unmarried mother because she has sore legs; the birth of twins causing the child to exclaim: “Granda, Ma must have had two sore legs this time. She got two wains!”.

F&BW - Two Sore Legs 2

My favourite feminist moment has to be the innocent proclamation by the young girl Lisa (Kerri Quinn, who literally bounces around the stage) in ‘Picking Worms’: “We love playing at the rope bridge. The men spoil it but. They want to talk at the rope bridge as if they are scared someone might take it!” – the narrator shaking her head in childish disdain as she takes back her history in relating her story like an express train with innocent breathlessness and enthusiasm which left me expecting her to fall over at any moment from lack of oxygen!

Yet despite the humour caused by Lisa’s innocence, in which she ponders “I wonder did Eve not like apples anyway or Adam. I think she should have left Adam and played with friends instead”, in reality Lisa’s innocent perspective is the most powerful aspect of this play. Her vantage point from her bedroom window allows her to literally see right to the heart of the truth, her childish perception is transparent in contrast to the secretive nature of the adults like Granny Benson and Karen’s mum who literally covers up the brutal reality: “Karen’s mammy always gets sick on Fridays, the day Karen’s daddy comes home from the tavern […] My mammy said when you put pan stick on it makes you feel better – Karen’s mammy must feel really good cause her face is brown”.

Lisa also reminds us of how big the world is and how little and insignificant we are in terms of the grand scale of things as she is awed by Karen and Fred’s all day trip in the summer: “Portrush must be while far away!”. Yet it is the insiders like Lisa who can voice the silent narratives of the seemingly unimportant people in her little street, people who are forgotten everyday because their lives have seemed insignificant to human history and yet they are at the very centre and heart of her, and our, world. It is poignant to see the innocence amidst the hatred created by the adult world – “It’s not on bringing the other sort into this community” – but Lisa in the selected picture stands at the rope bridge, as she is literally a neutral bridge through which we can look into the past without the filter of prejudices instilled by adulthood.

Jo Egan’s ‘Sweeties’ dramatically concludes the trilogy. From death, to a street, and now inside a home, the effect of ‘Picking Worms’ in order to see the smallest details is continued into the claustrophobic final play. This sense of suffocation stems from the heroine’s fear of the outside world; she is trapped in the confines of her home due to a memory from her childhood in which she was an onlooker when her friend was the victim of a paedophile. All the more upsetting is the fact that the heroine is once again played by actress Kerri Quinn (the child of ‘Picking Worms’) which tugs at the heart strings of the audience who have watched her bounce happily around the stage ten minutes previously. Here, silenced or taboo aspects of history are voiced, including abuse, mental illness, and female sexual experimentation, and the unease is palpable amongst the audience, reminding us of how conservative we still are today. Overall this voicing of silenced stories and taboo histories stood out as the dominant aspect of the production.

F&BW - Sweeties 1 L.R Kerri Quinn, Kat Reagan and Rosie McClelland

To conclude, Bridget talks about the poems her lover sent her and the fact that she didn’t know he had simply copied Keats, implying that these down-to-earth realities are just as important as any grand writers covered in university syllabuses. This is art for the people, all people, no exclusions. Walking amidst the empty room afterwards there was an eerie sense that these characters still hung in the air and haunted the set like ghosts, and this is the true marker of the trilogy’s success: reviving lost stories and remembering every passing life, as I will remember the female characters in these plays for their individual quirks and flaws. It made me think that my life too is a story, and the exciting part is that I don’t know yet know what kind of play it would make.

This entry was posted on June 6th, 2014 at 2:33 pm by Desima

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