I think the word fem­i­nist scares peo­ple be­cause they think it means you hate men or are go­ing to go on a rant

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

The 1960s did not swing for ev­ery­one in Ire­land. Back in 1964, the League of De­cency was, not for the first time, up in arms. Founded by JB Mur­ray in the wake of the Supreme Court’s de­ci­sion to al­low the im­por­ta­tion of con­tra­cep­tives, the League liked to keep a close eye on those work­ing in me­dia and the arts. RTÉ of­ten pro­vided a fo­cus for their con­cerns — but that year, it shifted to the Dublin The­atre Fes­ti­val (DTF), and Eu­gene McCabe’s de­but play King of the Cas­tle.

Now, as the fes­ti­val cel­e­brates its 60th an­niver­sary, the con­tro­ver­sial play is about to get peo­ple’s at­ten­tion again with a new stag­ing that sees Druid stal­wart Seán McGin­ley and ris­ing star Seána Ker­slake tak­ing the lead roles.

Born in Glas­gow in 1930, McCabe moved to Ire­land when he was nine years old, and af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Univer­sity Col­lege Cork, re­turned to Clones to work as a farmer.

He started writ­ing plays af­ter tun­ing into one too many unin­spir­ing RTÉ ra­dio dra­mas. Think­ing he could do a bet­ter job, he wrote to Hil­ton Ed­wards of the Gate The­atre, and soon be­gan work­ing on King of the Cas­tle.

The sto­ry­line was based on lo­cal ru­mour — a tale that McCabe had heard from a pri­est.

It was a tragedy of sorts about sex­ual pol­i­tics of the time and a self-made farmer called Scober McA­dam.

Through his grit and tenac­ity, Scober is a man who al­most has it all — the Big House, the Good Room, and a young Tro­phy Wife.

But the house has lost its sheen, the good room is full of an­i­mal feed and sy­ringes, and his wife, Tressa, is deeply frus­trated.

Scober is im­po­tent, but he is de­ter­mined to pro­duce a son and heir, and ar­ranges for one of his work­ers to sleep with her.

The frank way in which the char­ac­ters dis­cuss sex was con­sid­ered by some as shock­ing and un­savoury.

In fact, it led to the Pro­fes­sor of Ir­ish at Univer­sity Col­lege Dublin writ­ing a let­ter of con­do­lence to McCabe’s mother, in which he ex­pressed “sym­pa­thy for this aw­ful play Eu­gene has writ­ten”. Nowa­days, of course, the League of De­cency is long gone. It fal­tered af­ter the death of JB Mur­ray, who fa­mously suf­fered a heart at­tack while phon­ing the pa­pers to com­plain about see­ing a naked woman on RTÉ drama, The Spike.

In some re­gards, McCabe’s play too has faded from our minds.

As a play­wright, he is of­ten over­looked in favour of the other lit­er­ary greats; King of the Cas­tle was first staged at the DTF 53 years ago, along­side Brian Friel’s Philadel­phia, Here I Come!

But for Druid’s Garry Hynes, the play still res­onates deeply with our na­tional psy­che.

“It is a big, epic story full of emo­tion, it’s about peo­ple and their com­mu­nity,” she said. “That will al­ways be rel­e­vant. Stag­ing it this year made sense as it was the 60th an­niver­sary of the the­atre fes­ti­val.”

The di­rec­tor of the fes­ti­val, Wil­lie White, adds: “Ire­land is rapidly ur­ban­is­ing, and in that con­text, it’s good to re­mem­ber that we’re not that far from the land. In a way, this piece re­flects a part of the coun­try’s hid­den soul.”

Hynes pre­vi­ously staged the play 30 years ago in an ac­claimed pro­duc­tion on the Abbey stage, with Eu­gene McCabe’s daugh­ter Ruth tak­ing on the lead role of Tressa.

It was, to say the least, an usual piece of cast­ing, but Hynes be­lieves it is sim­ply “in­ter­est­ing rather than rel­e­vant”.

She says the 2017 ver­sion won’t be a restag­ing of the former pro­duc­tion, but some­thing new en­tirely.

“It was 30 years ago,” she says. “That de­tail is stripped from my mem­ory, so of course it will be very dif­fer­ent.”

This time, Seána Ker­slake has been cast as Tressa, while Seán McGin­ley plays Scober.

Most of us know Ker­slake (26) from Ste­fanie Preiss­ner’s twenty-some­thing drama, Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope.

She played car-jack­ing, vodka-slam­ming Cork woman Ais­ling O’Dowd, along­side ac­tress Nika McGuigan, the daugh­ter of boxer Barry.

Seána is known for play­ing con­tem­po­rary women on screen in works like A Date For Mad Mary, and Kirsten Sheri­dan’s Doll­house, and on stage in pro­duc­tions like From Eden.

Step­ping back to ru­ral 1960s Ire­land is a def­i­nite change of scene — “I’ve never been in any­thing that isn’t set in 2015, 2016 or 2017, that isn’t set now re­ally,” she says.

“This is my first pe­riod piece, ever. It’s a new chal­lenge, and nice to get to put on all the cos­tumes.”

Grow­ing up in Tal­laght, the mid­dle of three girls, Ker­slake be­gan tak­ing drama classes at a young age. She was study­ing English and mu­sic at NUI, Maynooth when she was first spot­ted by a tal­ent agent.

“But it wasn’t un­til I worked on Doll­house that I started think­ing that this could be some­thing I do,” she says. “On your own doorstep.”

Af­ter re­ceiv­ing an IFTA nom­i­na­tion in 2013, and se­cur­ing a lead role on Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope, she be­gan fea­tur­ing on plenty of ‘30 Un­der 30’ lis­ti­cles, with some writ­ers com­par­ing her to Scar­lett Jo­hans­son. “Peo­ple say that but I don’t see that,” she says awk­wardly. “I just keep do­ing my thing and pot­ter­ing away.”

“If you didn’t, you wouldn’t leave the house,” adds Seána. In­stead, she prefers to fo­cus on work. “It’s about the next job, the next au­di­tion. Be­ing an ac­tor is pre­car­i­ous. Af­ter this show I might not be work­ing till next sum­mer, that’s the re­al­ity of it.”

That seems un­likely, given that RTÉ have com­mis­sioned a sec­ond series of Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope. But Seána says she hasn’t re­ceived a script yet. “I have no idea about it — other peo­ple keep telling me it’s back, but I haven’t heard.

“Last series was a mad shoot but a fun shoot; it’s nice to see strong women on screen and a priv­i­lege to be part of that.”

Seána was one of the ac­tresses who took part in the Abbey The­atre’s Wak­ing the Fem­i­nists move­ment — which aims to even out the gen­der dis­par­ity in Ir­ish the­atre.

“I am a fem­i­nist,” she says, adding: “I think the word fem­i­nist scares peo­ple be­cause they think it means you hate men or are go­ing to go on a rant.”

As a fem­i­nist, the sub­ject mat­ter of King of the Cas­tle must be dif­fi­cult to di­gest — a man ask­ing an­other man to sire his wife.

The sub­ject seems to have par­tic­u­lar res­o­nance with the re­cent first pub­lic sit­ting of the Oireach­tas com­mit­tee on the Eighth Amend­ment. I ask Seána if she thinks McCabe’s words will tap into a larger con­ver­sa­tion about women’s body au­ton­omy.

She’s un­sure, although she ac­knowl­edges that oth­ers have drawn com­par­isons be­tween McCabe’s play and the re­cent Emmy-win­ning TV series The Hand­maid’s Tale.

“But I think Tressa is a strong woman,” she says. “That’s im­por­tant. She holds her own in a cast of 10 guys.

“She might be silent, and serve the men or make their din­ner, but even in her si­lence, she is very strong. To hold ev­ery­thing to­gether in that si­lence is very dif­fi­cult to do”.

King of the Cas­tle runs at Dublin’s Gai­ety The­atre from Oc­to­ber 11 un­til 15

IFTA nom­i­na­tion: Ker­slake and co-star Nika McGuigan (left) in ‘Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope’

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