Inspired by a true story, Mary and Me looks in on a conversation between a 15 year old Irish girl with a secret, and a statue of the Virgin Mary in 1986. We asked the writer and performer of the show, Irene Keheller to tell us about what inspired the show and what it means to her.
1. Could you briefly tell us about a time you yourself went against the tide, and what it felt like?
I think that my writing this piece of theatre was in a sense my own way of a protest or ‘going against the tide’. I had worked as a professional actress for the last eight years but over time became more and more frustrated with the casting briefs coming through each week. The male roles were all well defined by personality traits and detailed elements of their background whereas the female roles were defined by looks and extremely two dimensional and usually defined only in relation to the male role (‘The girlfriend of’…’wife of…’ /daughter of…’ etc.) Nearly all of the smaller roles for large scale TV shows required the actress being comfortable with full or at least partial nudity and most of these scenes involved playing a victim of abuse. I was tired of it and angry with the industry and felt like I was losing control over what I had wanted to do with my career which was to play interesting and well-defined characters. That was what made me decide to write a play myself, a way of taking some of that control back and creating a female character that is not solely defined by her relationship to men, or ‘a perfect victim’ but a fully realised, flawed and most of all, truthful character. My performance skills are also helpful when writing the play as I could hear the words and always said things aloud when writing them down. The play was a saving grace as it allowed me to feel in control of my career again and I was happy to turn the tide towards that feeling of empowerment.
2. What inspired you to create Mary and Me?
The inspiration came from a story I heard in English class when I was in secondary school in 2001. I first heard of Ann Lovett when I was 15 years old myself, when our English teacher told us the tragic story. Ann Lovett was 15 years when she died giving birth at a grotto in Granard, Co. Longford, Ireland in 1984. The story had a lasting effect on me and haunted me ever since. In late 2015 (31 years after her death) I made the decision to write a short play as a response to the story. The more I researched into the topic, the more I felt that Ireland has not changed as much as people may think it has in the last 30 years. I am now convinced it hasn’t changed much at all. Although ‘Mary and Me’ is set in 1986, it is still hugely relevant to Irish life today. Thirty three years after Ann Lovett’s death, women in Ireland still do not have autonomy over their own bodies. There is still much shaming of women and with details of hidden tragedies still emerging the past is very much present in Irish society and will be for some time in the future.
Although ‘Mary and Me’ is inspired by this true story, I have changed names, places, businesses and the characters mentioned are not based on real people, living or dead. The play follows the life of the young woman, Hannah, in the months before she gives birth, the everyday happenings in her life; her maths tests, art projects and relationships with boys and family. She shares these events in with the statue of Mary and in the company of Mary Magdalene in the local village grotto. The play then is an imagining of a young woman’s search for understanding in conversation with a statue of the virgin Mary. It is an original and unique imagining of the girl at the centre of a tragic event that shocked the nation. Although the subject matter is dark there is also a lot of shade, lightness and colour as we get to know the character and as her relationship with the two Marys grows over time.
I began writing the play in late 2015 and I finished the first draft within two months. What took time was re-drafting and editing. The play has been in development since January 2016 and premiered in the Brighton and Edinburgh Fringe this year in 2017.
3. What do you hope that audiences will take away from watching Mary and Me?
I think that most people would be able to relate to the theme of isolation and the fear of having a ‘secret’ at some stage in their lives. Hannah has a secret and she can’t confide in anyone so the central theme of loneliness is universal. However, we found from our two showings of the Work-in-Progress last year that the play particularly resonated with young women, teenagers and the younger generations. They said in the Q&A that they were able to relate to the main character. One of our main objectives with this project is to tell a story that has immediate resonance for our audiences, to provide an experience for the audience which leaves them feeing enriched and allows them to identify and relate to the character. I do think this play will resonate the most with young women as the struggles Hannah faces in 1986 are still struggles young women face growing up in Ireland over 30 years later. The themes are still very relevant to young people today in Ireland 2017 with Irish women still not having body autonomy. I hope that anyone who may be in a similar situation to the lead character, Hannah, feels that they can ‘talk about these things’ after seeing the show.
4. Can you tell us one other show/event in the festival that you’re excited about?
I am very excited to see A Cracked Plaster Sky I have always been a huge fan of Kay Adshead and the plot summary of this play is something that would really interest me. One of my favourite productions that I was ever in was ‘Stars in the Morning Sky’ and it sounds like it would have similar theme but at the same time it would have a very different style. I can’t wait to see it!
Mary and Me will be at Omnibus Theatre from Tue 17 – Thu 19 Oct, as part of our October festival, Perception 2017. For more information or to book tickets, click here.