Friday, September 17, 2021

Body Politics: No Motive, Sweeties (Macha Productions at Brian Friel Theatre until 18 September)

Jo Egan’s writing is extraordinary. Even without the stylish, choreographed delivery of the three actors and without the elegant backdrop, No Motive is one of the most engaging scripts and satisfying performances I’ve encountered in a long, long time.

It’s 1962, and Mary’s sudden death triggers her husband John to launch an investigation into her background and possible motives for her death by suicide. It’s a real whodunnit with Rachel ‘Shrewd’ McDoo following the clues. Each fresh revelation takes her in a new direction, unravelling another layer after layer of obfuscation that eventually stretch the length of the island of Ireland.

Significant trauma in Mary’s past is uncovered. Without giving away too many spoilers, the revelations involve religious and educational institutions, hypocrisy and cover-up, secrets and deception. Given the news coverage, it’s no longer shocking. But it is very unusual to see the issues and situations dealt with so comprehensively from a woman’s point of view rather than through the eyes of the media or the state.

Characters’ voices effortlessly switch between the trinity of Debra Hill, Colette Lennon and Maria Quinn. Consistency turns out to be unnecessary. The three act as one, often physically moving together and creating sharp lines and making mirrored gestures. Choreographer Eileen McClory has created what can only be described as a set of movements that look like synchronised swimming out of the water. It’s mesmerising to watch, so tightly integrated with the script.

While a Cork accent seems oddly absent from one section of the play, it’s a minor quibble given the richness of the rest of the performance. The great dynamics between the cast render the rather neat video backdrop almost superfluous (four tall translucent screens set at an angle, allowing the shadows of actors to be cast over the subtle location visuals).

The novel structure, combined with the good script, a fine cast and Jo Egan’s direction make No Motive a very special piece of theatre that should not be missed.

After the interval, the same cast return to the Brian Friel Theatre stage with a second play by Jo Egan, this time directed by her frequent collaborator Fionnuala Kennedy. Sweeties also begins with a death. It’s not certain whether agoraphobic Tracy (Maria Quinn) will be able to leave the house to attend her friend’s funeral. Older sister Jen (Colette Lennon) is at her wits’ end, caught between the desire to be encouraging and her frustration at becoming trapped in Belfast instead of soaking up a freer life in Australia. All the while, the ghost of young Paula (Debra Hill) lurks on the back of the sofa.

Once again there’s a sense of pulling back the layers, this time guided by Jen’s probing questions which act like lock picks prising open the door to a chamber of secrets. Though Jen’s inquisition is a tad rushed, perhaps a dramatic necessity, but an aspect of the script that leaves Sweeties lacking some of the polish of the evening’s earlier companion piece.

The abuse at the heart of the story is horrific: one girl watches while her friend goes into a sweet shop and is ‘felt up’ by the owner in exchange for bars of chocolate. The sweetie man is not the only paedophile in the vicinity. And the horror is amplified by the local community’s knowledge that this pattern of abusive behaviour is ongoing, and the inability of any adult to listen to the girls or to remove the abusers out of harm’s way.

The narrative is based upon years of interviews with one particular woman, augmented by conversations with a small number of others. To know that the story is more fact than fiction is shocking. To hear how the abuse has affected the two girls – just two of many who bear the brunt of an evil man’s unchallenged actions – is sickening and appalling.

The element of magic realism in Sweeties adds a levity to what quickly becomes a very dark conversation, along with a vitality and a sense of people finally moving as Paula skates around the tense siblings. Hill’s physicality adds enough mirth to lessen the tension of some scenes (and is also well used in No Motive as she twists her body and face into the shape of some of its more outlandish characters).

The betrayal of a friend is just a part of a whole community’s betrayal of their own children. An eleven-year-old cannot be guilty of not intervening, yet must carry the burden of what cannot be unseen. And then there’s the impact on the child being directly abused. Both living with the knowledge and the hurt and harm.

Post show discussions allow some processing of the two stories to occur before audiences step back out into the street.

Macha Productions’ Body Politics double bill of No Motive and Sweeties continues in the Brian Friel Theatre (at the back of the Queen’s Film Theatre complex) until 18 September (including a Saturday matinee).

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