What do we know about Toilers, the one-act by Suzanne R. Day? Described by one reviewer as her “little propaganda play”, it received a staging in 1913 to raise funds for a local suffrage organisation, the Munster Women’s Franchise League. But the script hasn’t been seen since.
Anyone less book-smart than Painted Bird, a company that mines archives to make theatre, would call it a day there. Like all skilled historians though, director Fiona McGeown and dramaturg Thomas Conway know that what’s missing can at least be speculated upon. With Susanne R. Day’s Toilers – Her Lost Play – as reconstructed by Painted Bird, they weave the playwright’s biography and other dramas into a noble work of resurrection.
Here, Day’s efforts and accounts are embodied by three women (Leah Moore, Julie Maguire and Seána O’Hanlon) in modern greys and khakis, as if she were an undying source of inspiration for the present. Classical upsets fold into recent defeats. A jaded Moore lingers over an election loss as a seminal female candidate; most women didn’t support her.
The production starts to move like a political thriller. We follow Day as she organises the Munster Women’s Franchise League, outlying its anti-militaristic stance, and even writing an unflinching letter to Emmeline Pankhurst. It then takes a different direction completely, to a séance in France where Day and her writing partner Geraldine Cummins receive an eerie premonition about the First World War. Eoin Winning’s golden lighting takes us into wartime, with Julie Maguire acting diligently as a nurse to the wounded. It puts Day’s extraordinary life into focus but the production starts to feel as loaded as its title.
We might access it easier if we were alerted to what source materials are being fed into the performance. It’s hard to follow, for instance, when the cast jump in and out of scenes from Day’s plays, though an impression eventually forms of a gleeful Seána O’Hanlon playing multiple shrewd protagonists. Whether investigating the poor conditions of a workhouse or taking on a frivolous admirer recently returned from America, Day’s playwriting credentials come across as seriously feminist. Such scenes have the bells and whistles of old melodrama, but Rob Moloney’s music suggests an intense summoning.
It poses the question: can Day can be unlocked as a contemporary? Painted Bird have the research to back up such a case but the frame of their production isn’t there yet. In the final scene, we’re neither clear on why figures are stripped from most of their clothing and bound, nor convinced that it pushes far enough. But as a piece of contemporary live art, set to stir, it could be the closest we’ll ever get to Toilers.
Susanne R. Day’s Toilers – Her Lost Play – as reconstructed by Painted Bird is at Cork Midsummer Festival until June 25th. For more details, click here.