I wanted a play that will chal­lenge our voyeurism. Emma blacks out. I thought it was in­ter­est­ing that we black out as an au­di­ence with her

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

cial-me­dia per­sona to pro­mote the book, she was our new­est lit­er­ary star, among a sta­ble of ex­cit­ing new­com­ers like Donal Ryan, Rob Doyle and Sara Baume. While book sales soared and Louise picked up awards, she was re­ceiv­ing mes­sages from sur­vivors of rape and sex­ual vi­o­lence. In 2016, she wrote the ac­claimed doc­u­men­tary for RTÉ about con­sent. A TV adap­ta­tion of Ask­ing for It is in devel­op­ment. Now a dream team are bring­ing it to the stage: di­rec­tor Annabelle Comyn and a punchy Lau­ren Coe in the lead­ing role.

Mead­hbh hadn’t read Ask­ing for It be­fore Land­mark asked her last sum­mer to adapt it, to­gether with Annabelle Comyn.

“I im­me­di­ately down­loaded the book, read it, and ab­so­lutely wanted to do it,” says Mead­hbh, who also wrote the play He­len and I.

She took a “foren­sic” ap­proach, read­ing the book five times and mak­ing notes on char­ac­ters, their jour­neys and the moods of the chap­ters. She in­vented di­a­logue and cut scenes and char­ac­ters to cre­ate a twoact play with 12 char­ac­ters. “I had to pull it all apart,” she says.

“We’re still find­ing new things. That is a sign of a re­ally good book, how much you can get from read­ing and reread­ing.”

Louise gave Mead­hbh and Annabelle a free hand with the adap­ta­tion. Did she re­ally have no changes to the script, no tiny, cru­cial ob­jec­tions?

“I wouldn’t think it was my place to make any changes — it’s kind of your story now as well,” says Louise. She ex­plains why this is. In 2016, she says, “it felt a lit­tle bit over­whelm­ing, with the im­pact it seemed to be hav­ing so­cially and cul­tur­ally. I re­alised I was go­ing to have to sep­a­rate my­self from the book”.

An un­ex­pected turn oc­curred out­side of the plot of Ask­ing for It. While Mead­hbh was writ­ing the script, four men in­clud­ing two Ul­ster rugby play­ers were put on trial, two of them charged with rape. There seemed to be a lot of sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween Louise’s book and the case. An al­leged gang rape per­pe­trated by the town’s sport­ing he­roes, topped off with on­line abuse: amid the ev­i­dence given in the Belfast court were What­sApp mes­sages that couldn’t be quoted here.

The lan­guage used by the Ul­ster men did in­flu­ence some of Mead­hbh’s script. It was her first real stab at locker-room talk, and when some of the males in the re­hearsal room found it “a lit­tle tame”, she was flum­moxed. “This is all I’ve got!”

Both writ­ers be­come im­pas­sioned when talk­ing about the trial, in which the four men were ac­quit­ted. “Whether you think a rape oc­curred or not, the What­sApp mes­sages were just so fright­en­ing,” says Louise. “I was won­der­ing about peo­ple I knew. Would you talk about me like this?

“There has to be a zero-tol­er­ance pol­icy, so that that kind of lad­dish ban­ter is seen as just in­ex­cus­able. It’s about ed­u­cat­ing young men so that they will have the courage to say to their friends ‘Do not talk like that’.”

The central drama in the play is an event that isn’t shown.

“I didn’t put it in the book,” says Louise. “To avoid the gra­tu­itous rep­re­sen­ta­tion of sex­ual vi­o­lence. Also I think it’s that re­ally ig­no­rant con­fla­tion of sex with rape. Rape is about dom­i­nance and power, it’s got noth­ing to do with sex.”

Mead­hbh nods. “I wanted a play that will chal­lenge our voyeurism. Emma blacks out. I thought it was in­ter­est­ing that we black out as an au­di­ence with her.”

For Mead­hbh, the #MeToo and Time’s Up move­ments have shown us one im­por­tant thing. “Rape isn’t al­ways this kick­ing and scream­ing af­fair. That, for a lot of peo­ple is a shock­ing re­al­i­sa­tion.”

“What makes it rape in the book,” says Louise, “is she says no and he keeps go­ing.”

Four nov­els bring Louise dan­ger­ously close to be­com­ing a na­tional trea­sure, a badass one who talks gender the­ory and wears PVC leg­gings. How is fame? She laughs. “Ir­ish celebrity is the big­gest oxy­moron.”

How has she changed since her Trin­ity Col­lege days?

“My fem­i­nism at that point was to be the cool girl,” she says, “I am much more com­fort­able in my own skin.

“You know, study­ing English lit­er­a­ture put me off want­ing to write. You’re read­ing all these in­cred­i­ble works of fic­tion, think­ing, I’ll never be able to at­tain these dizzy heights.”

It was in New York that she learnt to “own your am­bi­tion”, and it was her boss at Elle who en­cour­aged her to act on that am­bi­tion.

“Some­times it’s not just tal­ent. You have to have some tal­ent, but it’s drive, it’s work ethic, it’s stamina, it’s the re­fusal to give up when times get hard. That’s kind of the recipe for suc­cess.”

The pho­tog­ra­pher is wait­ing, as is an en­sem­ble of ac­tors in a re­hearsal room nearby. This speed date is over, time’s up.

Ask­ing for It opens at Cork’s Every­man The­atre on June 15; it opens at Dublin’s Abbey The­atre on Novem­ber 9

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