How far would you go to discover your past? Noelle Brown’s play, co-authored with Michèle Forbes, is based on the actor and playwright’s search for her birth parents. It’s a throwback to mid-century Ireland, where religious orders presided over unmarried mothers and illegal adoptions. Such institutions still keep their records sealed off today.
As the government investigation continues into the type of mother and baby homes that Brown was adopted out of in the 1960s, the appearance of this 2013 production at the Abbey’s experimental Peacock Theatre feels like a timely piece of programming. Confronted with the difficult investigation, Brown invents for herself the role of a trench coat-wearing detective named Breda. The story moves along like a gritty piece of gumshoe fiction.
The clues are limited: a baby’s yellow dress, an elusive photograph, a lost envelope. But Brown is both canny and cynical, full of slangy observations and constant self-doubt. Forever armed with paper and Tippex, she cleverly swindles access to her own birth certificate.
Yet director Conor Hanratty’s production isn’t that of a hardboiled thriller. Instead, it is full of fuzzy outlines and partly drawn shapes. The coming and going of Bríd Ní Neachtain in and out of the half-light, whether giving voice to an unsympathetic nun or a lonely parent, suggests a reality that won’t provide neat answers. Teasingly, the letters read aloud are addressed to Noelle, not Breda.
As Breda grows increasingly restless, starting each note with her latest address, so does an aunt’s correspondence, discouraging her from the search and whatever painful past it digs up. Brown’s dramas tend to have a stealthy hand (see her play Foxy) and here the silence over issue of adoption in Ireland is treated with a sly directness.
Hanratty’s pacing takes a hit, however, as the detective narrative is overtaken by epistolary elements, the kind that inspire the stretching parchments of Maree Kearns’s economic set. Breda’s pages, whether used to build a profile of her biological mother or brainstorming how to get answers from a priest, lack a certain cohesion when read out in succession.
When, at last, a picture comes of Brown’s birth mother, it is at once stirring and tragic. Whilst some sort of resolution has been reached, the investigator remains fascinated with the unanswered questions. There is, however, a poignant reassurance that what’s lost isn’t necessarily forgotten.
Postscript is on at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin until 24th June 2017. Click here for more details.