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