Sunday, August 25, 2013

Mephisto, 'Eclipsed': Raise Up Your Hearts, You Washer Women!

Photo: Hugh Quigley
Town Hall Theatre, Galway
Aug 22-31

My review of Eclipsed by Patricia Burke Brogan coming up just as soon as I have tea and toast in the small pantry ...

The lights rise on the set of Patricia Burke Brogan's play - a dungeon washroom in a closed Magdalene Laundry - as an American visitor searches through some documents. The woman, Rosa, was born in this building, and now she searches for the name of the Irish mother she never knew. What follows is a tracing back to the days when the laundry was operational, to Rosa's mother Brigit and four other women incarcerated there.

The rich conservatism of twentieth century Irish society with its repression of women and sexuality was the perfect environment for these labour camps to prevail. But eventually what was hidden was visible, as the laundries' vile abuse of human rights was discovered.

Before the government reports and the newspaper articles, ANU Productions' Laundry and the release of Peter Mullan's 2002 eye-opening film The Magdalene Laundries. Before the discovery of 155 unmarked graves on property once owned by the Our Sisters of Our Lady of Charity back in 1993, Galway playwright Patricia Burke Brogan wrote Eclipsed. Inspired by her own entry into a convent as a noviciate nun and her observations of the treatment of the women incarcerated there, the play received its premiere by Punchbag in Galway in 1992. Its arrival was powerful, and one of the local stories has it that the actress playing Brigit, who at one point makes for a literal escape from the laundry by running towards the door of the auditorium, was grabbed by a Magdalene survivor in the audience who told her: "You run and you don't stop".

It was Patricia Burke Brogan who broke the story, and she received attacks and accusations of being a church-hater for it. With Mephisto's production we look on the controversy from the other side, from a present where the laundries have been closed nearly twenty years, from a year in which the Irish State has acknowledged its involvement in the Laundry system and has introduced a compensation fund for those who were incarcerated, a year in which some progress towards justice has been made. Eclipsed doesn't feel any less luminous since its debut.

We are shown the women at their work and at their play. When their lieutenant Mother Victoria is out of sight they rummage excitedly through the pockets of their latest shipment and laugh at unfortunate underwear. Mandy, who is boy-crazed, is convinced that Elvis is sending her love letters. Teenager Juliet considers life as a nun and staying inside the convent, something which the older Nellie-Nora can relate to. But some are determined to escape. Cathy made it outside but was greeted by mocking children and eventually was caught by the man driving the laundry van. Perhaps most desperate is Brigit, who in her longing to find her baby Rosa is continuously taunted by the golden keys dangling from the noviciate nun's belt.

The play takes some time to get going as director Niall Cleary occasionally allows the pace to wade. The noviciate nun Sister Virginia, played by Catherine Denning, turns out to be a key figure but Denning's performance, saintly as it is, is underwhelming. The comedy seems to be the strength of the production, which leaves us at the interval wondering if the darker elements of the play are too much for the company to handle.

But in the second half, Emma O'Grady releases great fire in Brigit's emotional attack against the institution that holds her prisoner, against the notion of a life laboured and wasted so that penance will be granted at death. "We are alive NOW!", she pleads. Zita Monahan also shows force when an escape opportunity presents itself to Cathy. Siobhán Donnellan measures Mandy's final realisation about 'the King' quite beautifully, and the subtle Margaret O'Sullivan as Nelly-Nora delivers the last line of the play with such delicacy that it brings several spectators to tears.

"We are eclipsed", says Mother Victoria, played by an acute Caroline Lynch, referring to some obscuring of salvation, the blocking out of the light of heaven. Truthfully she speaks but she's the product of a system that's playing her. Burke Brogan exposes the laundry as first and foremost a business that exploits Catholic morality, and it secures its workers by preventing these women from living their lives, to block the light from their faces, to condemn them as sinners and accustom them to the shadows.

The piercing light of Eclipsed is to split the Magdalene contraption open, and this doesn't fade in Mephisto's production, which feels like the company's most political and powerful work to date. The all-female cast's artful telling of these real women's lives imprisoned will never let those souls fade to dark obscurity. Never again eclipsed.

What did everybody else think?

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