Rough Magic: Tracing a creative female corporeality in the archive and the Irish theatre tradition

Photograph by Conor Horgan

As a feminist performance scholar, I am keenly aware of the challenges in uncovering women’s theatrical contributions and gathering a legacy of their traces. Without doubt this motivated me to find a way to assemble a tradition of women in modern Irish theatre in my book, Women and Embodied Mythmaking in Irish Theatre. My research is concerned with women’s disruption of the perpetuation of mythic narratives and myths of femininity through their own theatrical mythmaking. Rough Magic productions, including Paula Meehan’s Mrs Sweeney and Olwen Fouéré’s Sodome, my Love, shape the tradition proposed by my book. This is unsurprising given the statistics: The Gender Counts Report: An Analysis of Gender in Irish Theatre, 2006–2015, highlights Rough Magic’s strong track record in working with women theatre makers in contrast to the woeful underrepresentation of women artists in the theatre organisations in receipt of the most public subsidy. The company’s archive is a valuable resource for Irish theatre scholarship enabling us to further engage with the work and legacies of the independent theatre sector. Moreover, Rough Magic’s archive assists in the project of deconstructing the male-dominated literary canon of Irish theatre through analysis of the work of women theatre makers in a variety of roles.

The canon of Irish theatre has served to marginalise women’s contributions, a process of erasure that is perpetuated through its retelling. So how might we engage with performance archives in order to build an alternative framework to the canon? In Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment, Rebecca Schneider warns against the binary logic which opposes archive and performance, aligning the latter with ephemerality, and describes the archive as an embodied encounter: ‘a set of live practices of access, given to take place in a house (the literal archive) built for live encounter with privileged remains’ (108). Through the process of writing my book I am performing an archive; I am engaged in the act of retrieving and preserving performances in order to house their remains. I acknowledge, as Schneider describes, ‘the archive [as] a live performance space, and the performance space [as] an archive for the revenant’ (110), and thus the tradition of women’s theatre in Ireland which I interlace is one shaped by resurfacing and remains.

The role of the body in the transmission of memory is central to my argument and it is the female writing body which facilitates the reappearance and reassertion of the archive’s remains; fleshing out a rich and unmined vein of creativity and resistance in Irish theatre.

Shifting the emphasis from discursively documented history to focus on how history and memory are enacted on and remembered through the body, is an essential step in the process of addressing how women’s bodies bear the consequences of the imposition of myths of femininity. Moreover, the erasure of the realities and lived experiences of women’s bodies from public discourse in Ireland makes this all the more vital. Bodies expose the gaps and neglected spaces of official histories to form the connective tissue that assembles a body of women’s work in Irish theatre.

Photograph by Conor Horgan

The Rough Magic archive was a crucial resource in researching the final chapter of my book which focuses on the performer Olwen Fouéré. Through analysis of her work I propose a creative female corporeality, or writing body, and trace the connections back to the earliest performances discussed in my book: the tableaux vivants performed by the Inghinidhe na hÉireann in 1901. Fouéré’s Sodome, my Love (2010) was produced by Rough Magic and directed by the artistic director Lynne Parker.

Photograph by Conor Horgan

This poetic monologue written by Laurent Gaudé, translated and performed by Fouéré, details the experiences of the last surviving woman of Sodome who has been buried under salt. The salt marks the anxiety of this retelling: it both preserves and denies life, connoting the possibilities for, and limits placed on, female bodily expression. My initial encounter was as an audience member at the Project Arts Centre in 2010, and I later viewed a DVD recording held in Rough Magic’s archive.

Furthermore, the archive granted me access to a recording of a special performance of the play in Macedonia on 31 July 2010, staged on the ancient site of the Church of St Sophia. All of these embodied encounters shaped my close analysis of the performance, and persistently forced me to engage with the tangled relationship between performance, memory and history. This between space is where performance remains as we engage with embodied history and challenge conventional notions of the archive. It is through this challenge that women’s contributions to theatre history resist what Derrida describes as the ‘house arrest’ of the archive and, I would add, the canon of modern Irish theatre.

Shonagh Hill

Women and Embodied Mythmaking in Irish Theatre is now available from Cambridge University Press:

https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/women-and-embodied-mythmaking-in-irish-theatre/E82515BA56B7120E90EA19626CDCE162

Rough Magic Memories

The third in our series of blog posts on the Rough Magic archive is by Nicholas Grene, Professor Emeritus of English Literature, Trinity College Dublin

In the summer of 1984, I ran into Lynne Parker and Declan Hughes in Front Square; they had just graduated.  ‘What are you up to?’ I asked.  ‘We’re setting up a theatre company’.   Hardly a surprise there: they had been mainstays of D.U. Players for the four years of their time as students of English.   ‘What are you calling it?’  ‘Rough Magic’.  I was immediately struck. It was simply the most brilliant name for a theatre company — at once ‘rough’ as in experimental, challenging, and at the same time magical, transformative, as all theatre should be.  But it also showed their time in English had not been wasted: they had picked out Prospero’s line from The Tempest, ‘this rough magic / I here abjure’.  The old magus might be abjuring rough magic, but the young Turks were about to create it.

For me the ‘living archive’ on display in the Long Room brings alive vivid memories of thirty-five years of Rough Magic.  There were the shows that Lynne and Declan had staged when still in Players, like a hugely ambitious production of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties which Lynne both directed and designed.  It was an amazingly talented group which included Stanley Townsend and Darragh Kelly, Pauline McLynn and Anne Enright.  Anne, now of course an acclaimed novelist, at the time looked like becoming an actor and playwright; she played for Rough Magic in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (1984) and Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon (1986).  Pauline McLynn, whose wonderfully infectious laugh I remember from first year tutorials, was to star opposite Owen Roe in the magnificent 2006 Taming of the Shrew transposed to a 1970s Irish Midlands pub.  (When she was playing Mrs Doyle in Father Ted, I had to reassure people I had actually taught her – she wasn’t really that old.)

Rough Magic transformed Irish theatre in the 1980s by staging edgy contemporary British and American plays.  I still recall the unfortunate Anne Byrne and Martin Murphy, in different scenes of Howard Barker’s No End of Blame (1985), having to stand stock still and stark naked in the tiny, old Project Arts Theatre, perishingly cold as it was in those days — you could count each goose pimple.  The company gave new currency to classic English plays as in their sleazy production of the Restoration comedy The Country Wife (1986), or Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1991) with most of the characters in drag.  But they also commissioned important new work from Irish playwrights: Gina Moxley’s Danti Dan (1995), Donal O’Kelly’s one-man show Bat the Father, Rabbit the Son (1988), and of course Declan Hughes’s own Digging for Fire (1991).  These productions fundamentally changed audiences’ expectations as to what an Irish play might be like.

Music was always a key part of Rough Magic’s work, and Helene Montague, one of the founding members of the group, was very important here, as was Arthur Riordan who wrote the astonishingly funny musical Improbable Frequency with Bell Helicopter (2004).   A part of the daring of their Phaedra (2011) was the collaboration of playwright Hilary Fanning and composer Ellen Cranitch in creating a drama that alternated between spoken dialogue and glorious singing.

When I look through this exhibit, with posters, programmes and scripts for so many shows of Rough Magic that I saw over the years, it serves to renew all the pleasure the company has given me, and as a living archive to enable me to live it through all over again.

Nicholas Grene

Professor Emeritus of English Literature, Trinity College Dublin

‘An Unlikely Institution’, Rough Magic Theatre Company – a Living Archive

The Library’s latest exhibition showcases highlights from the Rough Magic Theatre Company archive which was donated to the Library in 2017. Over the next few weeks we will be featuring a series of blog posts focusing on the archive and start with an introduction by Lynne Parker, Artistic Director of Rough Magic;

Photograph by Alan Byrne

The collective that was formed as Rough Magic in Players’ Theatre in 1984 was a creative ensemble of seven. Over three decades the people have changed but the personality of the company has stayed constant – an eclectic collusion, with unity of purpose, generosity of spirit and an inclusive sense of ambition. 

This exhibition charts the evolution of the company in the context of that original vision; celebrating the people and the productions that formed it, and presenting an overview of a unique piece of Irish theatre history. As an independent, and highly individual company, Rough Magic is an assertion of the maverick spirit in Irish theatre.

Photograph by Alan Byrne

Within these cases, iconic plays, such as Declan Hughes’ Digging For Fire and Arthur Riordan’s Improbable Frequency, are represented by artefacts; publicity material, a stage manager’s prompt copy, the mechanics of production. Each of the objects in the exhibition relates to a milestone in the company’s thirty-five year trajectory, and some of the many shows – over a hundred, more than sixty of which have been Irish or world premieres.

Also cause for celebration is the enduring connection with Trinity, Rough Magic’s birthplace and now guardian of its materials and legacy, in a living archive that will continue to expand, consolidate and enrich our joint history.

Rough Magic exhibition in the Long Room. Back Row L-R: Margaret McAuliffe, Peter Hanley, Helene Montague, Conor O’Riordan, Arthur Riordan, Frank Blake, Stanley Townsend. Front Row L-R: Owen Roe, Gillian Buckle, Venetia Bowe,
Gina Moxley, Anne Byrne, Lynne Parker. Picture by Paul Sharp/SHARPPIX

 

We are currently enjoying a wonderful residency in the Long Room Hub as Artists in Residence to develop a new piece around choral singing across Ireland;  and along with our productions for next year we will be launching a new Methuen anthology of Rough Magic plays, edited by Patrick Lonergan, which in due course will become a part of our archive collection.

By holding, housing and offering access to our Archive, the Library provides a secure repository for Rough Magic’s past that can inform and underpin the implementation of its future.

Lynne Parker

Artistic Director, Rough Magic Theatre Company