Unafraid of the dark
Fresh from her Fringe success, Eva O’Connor’s new BBC Three series takes an unflinching look at the psychology of anorexia. She talks to Shilpa Ganatra about getting to the heart of the story
For an artist specialising in dark dramas, things are looking dazzlingly bright for Eva O’Connor. Her interactive play The Friday
Night Effect was a hit at the Dublin Fringe Festival, a month after a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe. Her run continues on BBC Three with
Overshadowed, a first TV outing for her and collaborator Hildegard Ryan.
“Everyone is ‘wow, it’s amazing, you’re so lucky to get these commissions’. I know I’m lucky, but I also worked really f***ing hard – I’ve been making plays for eight years, running my own theatre company, and spent the time absolutely broke,” she says. “I spent years and years pushing just to get meetings, and suddenly when people realise what I could do, doors started to open.”
Overshadowed follows on from her play of the same name, which debuted as part of the arts/mental health festival First Fortnight in Dublin. It’s morphed along the way: with her first-hand experience on the subject, O’Connor plays a personification of anorexia – a whisper in the ear, a destructive thought that just won’t quit – but Limerick-born Michelle Fox takes the main role of Imogen.
“She’s such a compelling actress to watch – you just feel for her so much,” says O’Connor. “The thing that I always wanted to convey with it is that you are not your eating disorder, it’s separate, and you see the pain in Michelle’s eyes, and she gives you such a window to her soul.”
The story is told over eight 10-minute videos that mix fly-on-the-wall filming with expositional scenes direct to camera. “A lot of people have thought ‘this is going to be shit’ and once they’ve seen it they’re like ‘oh wait, it’s actually good’,” she says, with a blunt self-awareness that’s evident in her writing.
“You can have any sexy format you want, but the truth and heart of the story has to be there. I’ve gone through it and I’ve come out the other end, so I’m sure that the content is in the right place and we’re not glamourising anything. People in other productions seem to look incredible when they’re anorexic, but that’s not the reality. I wanted to show anorexia isn’t about food and weight: it’s about control, it’s about relationships breaking down, it’s about losing all sense of yourself.”
Counselled back to health
O’Connor’s experience took place when she was in her teens in Co Clare; she became anorexic before being counselled back to health in her early 20s through therapy and a close circle of supportive family and friends. When she penned the play in 2014, she found her private experience went very public.
“An artist can’t really shy away from that, for their work to have real meaning. So I had to get used to it. But I worried about my parents and friends – you don’t want to hang them out to dry when they’ve supported you so much.”
The payoff is that others have found solace in the story. O’Connor says she received more feedback on this play from those affected than for My Name is
Saoirse, her award-winning one-woman play based on her experience of abortion.
“It can be really f**king heavy, but it can be inspiring. When I performed it on tour in Kerry, two girls came out of hospital with their mums to come and see it; at the end, they were weeping, their mums were weeping, I was weeping. Often people reach out because they want you to help them, but I can’t because I’m not a counsellor, so all I can do is give them links to where they can get help.”
O’Connor is now based in the UK after studying in Edinburgh and London, and although it’s more competitive, she says there’s more scope for new writers in London than in Dublin.
“There’s no comparison; London is the capital of the world in terms of television, and we’re lucky to be there. We’re already talking to multiple production companies in the UK about our next TV project. If you were hoping to get a series in RTÉ, there’s a much longer line of people waiting and fewer opportunities. I don’t want to bitch superhard about Ireland, but that’s the reality.
“There’s not loads of Irish female writers, and there’s not even lots of TV female writers who are our age,” she adds. “I don’t watch my life on screen every day, in the same way that
The Friday Night Effect is about three twentysomething-yearold girls on a night out. Most TV writers are male and in their 40s, so it’s exciting that there are others coming up.”
Along with director and script editor Hildegard, the next project currently being shopped to UK broadcasters is a version of
The Friday Night Effect in which “each episode will be around 20 minutes long, and when you get to a decision, you can click into that episode”. O’Connor’s radio play of The Midnight Sandwich will air on BBC Radio 4 at the end of October, and there are further outings of Overshadowed, the Fishamble-produced play
I wanted to show anorexia isn’t about food and weight: it’s about control, it’s about relationships breaking down, it’s about losing all sense of yourself
Maz and Bricks, plus more My Name Is Saoirse to coincide with next year’s abortion referendum.
“The work I’ve done so far has a theme of mental health running through it, from my personal experience,” the 27-year-old says. “But the older and the more recovered I am, the less I’m going to write about my own experiences. I’m happy and in love, but that makes me really f**king boring. So I don’t know what my next project will be, but it probably won’t be about me.”
If a clear head doesn’t make for a good story, it certainly provides a sharp tool to carve out a new one, particularly welcome at this point in her career.
“Me and Hildy are writing full time now, so we need to be well to work to deadlines. So much is expected of us. I worked through a lot of my ‘issues’ through theatre, and now I’m glad I’m in a good place in my mind.”
Dark whispers Michelle Fox and Eva O’Connor in the BBC Three drama Overshadowed