It says a lot at the beginning of Eva O’Connor’s new play for Fishamble, when a woman and a man start arguing on a Dublin tram, that the only thing to shut someone up is a reference to Ireland’s Eighth Amendment. That legislation banning abortion has been steadily divisive in Irish life for 34 years; even the most talkative person might shy away from discussing it in public.
Director Jim Culleton and dramaturg Gavin Kostick recognise O’Connor’s play as a meeting of minds. Maz (O’Connor) has travelled from the countryside to attend a Repeal the Eighth protest organised in the wake of a pregnant woman’s death. She is putting the finishing touches to a placard when Bricks (Stephen Jones) remarks: “I suppose you artists are like that. Always pushing boundaries”. The line has a lick of truth; O’Connor told her own abortion story while promoting her 2014 play My Name is Saoirse.
On the other hand, Bricks, a dedicated father, supports the amendment. By counterposing these characters, O’Connor’s play has the makings of that classical battle: a cry against infanticide that, in Ireland, has always trumped a call for women’s health. But when Maz gets to the protest, she’s stirred by the sight of someone from her past, signalling a possible change in the tide.
This heated debate, in truth, provides mostly a setting. O’Connor swerves left of pro-choice agitprop and aims for a humanist drama that cuts deeper. Through serendipitous circumstances, Maz and Bricks end up spending the day together. Maree Kearns’s urban set transports between pubs and bridges under Sinéad McKenna’s rigorous lighting. O’Connor’s Maz, sharp-tongued and on-edge, argues and reconciles throughout with Jones’s chatty and impudent Bricks. We soon see both are covering up past trauma.
O’Connor’s work often hones in on mental health, and here she suspects pain hidden under the surface. A switch from dialogue to first-person narration is effective for developing characters’ interior lives (Maz’s rage in particular), but it’s hard to guess why O’Connor writes such passages in jangling rhyme. It’s absorbing but extraneous, an unneeded parlour trick.
Sadly, such narration starts to be a crutch. When Maz explains an advance in the plot (“The words spew out my lips before I think them through…”), she doesn’t quite convince. Later, she’ll drop a major truth without any prompt. The storytelling feels a little underwritten.
Still, this drama has a lot to say about anger, how it mobilises and, more importantly, how it consumes. When Bricks takes Maz’s hand at the protest, it dawns that they’re united by their pain, a connection that may very well save their souls from self-destruction. Because this Ireland is a state of unbridled fury.
Maz and Bricks is at Project Arts Centre, Dublin, until May 13th. For more details, click here.