A Lost Tale of Biafra

a tale of lost biafra

“… a neverland, it could not stand.”

Writer: Justin Butcher. Director: Amaka Okafor. Performer: Ben Okafor. Run time: 15.39 mins.

The scene is intensely peaceful. A man in a pink shirt, summer hat and sunglasses is smoking and sipping from a whisky glass while looking over his large, lush garden. Past his garden fence are hills and fields, green and fresh, trees and the brightest blue sky. It couldn’t be a more perfect day for relaxing in the garden. This is built upon as the man wanders through to his music studio bursting with instruments and the potential for creation and then a kitchen, warm and busy. Accompanied by his grandchild at times the man moves with a leisurely pace and seems at peace with the world.

As the camera moves a voiceover tells is the man’s story. His, is of home, family, memories and the ravages that war wreaks upon them. It couldn’t contrast more with the place in which he now finds himself. His is the story of “three dreadful years of Biafra – famine and war”. When he was a boy the Nigerian civil war began and it didn’t take long until the conflict encroached on his village. Shells, machetes flashing, bloodshed, a community torn apart and neighbours turning to deadly enemies. It sounds terrifying, immediate and personal. At appropriate moments in the narrative the camera pauses on a series of photographs: his father, young handsome man with soft eyes and then a photo of his mother on her wedding day, full of hope and beauty. There is also a family scene. With the browns and greys of old photographs it highlights the importance of family and how this story is not just his, but that of his whole family.

The family fled the ethnic cleansing that had arrived at their door, not knowing if they would ever be able to return. During their first night sheltering at a cousin’s house the father had a dream that caused his body to shake and scream. His house was covered by tarpaulin, standing amid a wasteland of slaughter and ruin. Three figures were waiting for him, one of whom had eyes that burnt like fire. This figure will come back to him and play a pivotal role not just in the father’s life but also in the life of the house. This touch of magic and symbolism moves the narrative to create something different and unexpected. It is a long three years before the family can begin to return. Our speaker first. Now seventeen he a young man who has seen too much and is now “haunted, robbed, hardened”. Over time he removes the vines and creepers that cover the house in a bid to prepare the house for his father, who is the last to return home. Upon seeing the house, the father falls to his knees and prays. The next day a visitor arrives and resurrects the fathers dream and blurs the line between the spiritual and the corporeal.

A Lost Tale of Biafra turns the horrendous into poetry, making the painful events described more alive and urgent. This house obviously has a strong hold on the imagination of our speaker and it shows how family bonds and memories can be captured by places of emotional importance. As the story comes to an end there is another image. This time a painting of the man, before moving back to the family photo, reflecting the closing of this chapter of family history. This is one of the few monologues that does not mention the pandemic. It is the right note to end the Fight Back series on. Despite the heavy nature of the story it shows how with time, and a little faith, we can return to our lives and nature will continue to grow and nurture.

Typing Ben Okafor’s name into youtube brings up many music videos but also a short video interview where he tells the story of the Biafran war breaking out when he was twelve. This also shows that the photos used in the A Lost Tale of Biafra are his own family. The horror and darkness of the story is drawn from his memory. It can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pc2jnWWs9O8

A Lost Tale of Biafra is an intense, touching story of family, faith, war, home and nature told in beautifully poetic spoken and visual language.

The One Tree

the one tree

 

Writer: Tara Maria Lovett. Performer: Pat Nolan. Run time: 15.02 mins.

 

“The tree started speaking to me the night I got locked on account of the virus.”

The colour palette is subdued, a man is sat alone, head a little down. He looks serious, contemplative and perhaps sad. It is several moments before he begins to speak and we think the tone has been set, but The One Tree is not so predictable. One night, drunk, life impinged upon by the virus, he walks to a crossroads, where a hawthorn tree (female, of course) begins to speak to him. This is not just any tree (although the fact it talks and calls humans’ eejits is an early indication of this). The only one of its kind, it is known across the county. Standing tall at the centre of a four-point crossroads hawthorn trees in Ireland for growing of their own accord. They were not planted by human hands and they are often regarded with fear and superstition. Associated with death and sex, many people avoid hawthorn trees, however Jamesy finds himself in a full-blown conversation with this one. He quickly remembers that this tree has been important throughout his life.

It was under this tree that he first shifted a girl. Her name was Gracie. Sweet with black hair and a kind smile they kissed and fumbled as innocent fifteen year olds. Over time they fell in love and she thought the world of him. The tree tells him she would have married him; insisting on this over and over again. He loved her too but he dithered and they drifted apart. The tree however understands the patterns and cycles of life and death better than he does. Can he learn something from her? After all, Unlike Jamesy the tree knows exactly what it wants: “all you eejits to be gone”. The tree is sparky and spikey, snapping out its frustration. It feels that the “virus is the earth spitting in your face”; that humanity is at the same kind of crossroads.

Shortly after their encounter Jamesy, still thinking of the girl he lost, has to say goodbye to someone else. He has been living with his elderly mammy, looking after her, until she is admitted to hospital where she dies. He goes to collect her personal items but is prevented from seeing her in person. The funeral is subdued. As he says “a virus funeral is none at all” and in Ireland in particular there is something deeply sad and lonely about a sparsely attended funeral with mourners forced to stay away. As one life ends something good starts to blossom. Gracie Riley, from all those years ago, hair still pitch black, takes his hand. The tree, the one tree, knew what Jamesy really wanted and needed even when he did not.

After the funeral, the tree never spoke again. He pilgrimaged to see her often. Now hand in hand with Gracie. He would pick white blossoms for her hair and they would kiss like teenagers again. The longing for the tree to talk to him again doesn’t leave him, but no matter how much he wanted her to, she would not speak to him again. There is a strain of magical realism in Irish literature and theatre and it comes to life perfectly here. The One Tree is touching and poignant, shifting from light hearted to tender and honest. It suggests that the natural world can heal; both people and itself. Maybe this period of isolation, of lockdown, is needed for the environment to have the peace and time to return to itself and heal. This is a beautiful piece full of tenderness that could be expanded into a one hour play.

 

For information about the hawthorn tree see Dr Marion McGarry’s rte article: https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2020/0506/1136776-hawthorn-tree-ireland-folklore/.

 

The Jar

Writer: Myrn Devaney. Performer: Lauren Farrell. Run time: 13.16 mins.

 

“I don’t care if he sees me like this. Better he does.”

A young woman in blue pj’s, her hair undone, is trying to trap a spider. There isn’t anyone else to catch it for her. Eventually she catches it under a jar and they begin a conversation. She doesn’t want to kill it but doesn’t know what else to do with it. So why not have a chat in the meantime? The spider is a blot on her landscape. The living room is large and fancy, artfully decorated it screams togetherness. Which one quickly realises is how our narrator usually is and likes to appear to the world at large. So what has happened?

It is not usual for her to look ‘undone’, to not be wearing makeup, hair styled, clothes stylish and on point. Is it the lockdown that has caused her to stop caring so much about her looks? She would never let ‘him’ see her ‘au naturel’. It is first thing in the morning and she is drinking leftovers out of a champagne glass so it looks like something has shifted in her life. It turns out this is one of the few monologues where the speaker is inside for a different reason; a break up. They were together eight years, he was safe, stable Sam, the perfect match to her: career woman, doctor, professional. He was the one she had decided on. So it came as something as a shock when he suggested a break. How could he feel confident that she wouldn’t want someone else in the years to come, to try something new and see if she had missed out. No. it would be far better to take a break. He wanted her to go off and maybe see someone else. If this sounds like walking into a dead end, they you’d be right. If Friends has taught us anything, it is that a break is never a good idea. A girls holiday in Majorca led to some unsavoury events and now she is home alone and hiding from the world.

One gets the impression that this is the first time she has ‘lost’. That something in her life has broken down and is imperfect. This is reflected in her appearance and in the sneaky thing she does near the end that even though it made sense still surprised. Can the spider help her out of this situation?

As the layers of makeup and effort to be presentable have been peeled away she has become a little sharp, maybe even vindictive at times, but also more real. There is a surprising amount going on in The Jar and it benefits from a second watch (this is one of the few benefits of theatre on screen). Although Farrell is far too young to be playing the character, she and Devaney pull it off in this sharp and layered production shot through with comedy.

Backwards and Forwards

backwards and forwards

Writer: David Halpin. Performer: Jed Murray. Run time: 11.48 mins.

 

“I need to tell you something, and you need to take me serious”

Well. We are living in strange times. Central Dublin is empty, everyone is inside watching TV even though there is no rugby on, it’s near impossible to get a pint, and oh, yeah, the wardrobe behind the chair, it’s actually a time machine.

It takes a few minutes for this fact to be established. Our narrator is talking to someone on face time and he is clearly nervous. Not just because of the time machine, but because he fears that he will not be listened to. After several weeks in lockdown he is a bit rusty but his mannerism and demeanour give the impression that he is often not listened to. This adds to his endearing, likeable nature. Over the course of the conversation, of which we can only hear his side, we find out that the time machine can only make one journey. So he has a choice, forwards or back. The choice is more than that though. He would like to use this discovery to help mankind. Maybe to find a vaccine. Or to go back and warn people about what is coming. Will his friend know what to do, if he even believes him, and what world changing (and Sunday World front page) decision will he make?

Our narrator, despite his fidgety behaviour, acts as though turning one’s wardrobe into a time machine is completely normal; albeit a little different to the lockdown hobbies others have been taking up. In the circumstances maybe it is. The world seems to have turned upside down and he has found a vehicle that allows him to face the fear and horror of what is happening. His desire to help may also be a desire to do something. To not just sit at home and wait the situation out. Here Halpin’s script gets to grips with the anxiety, fear and frustration of the moment.

We do not hear the person he is talking to, only the responses, so we have to fill in the gaps from his reactions. This technique works particularly well and adds to the humour of Backwards and Forwards. This is reinforced by the narrators strong Dublin accent (“I don’t bleedin’ know”) and his colloquial responses when he is questioned, and when he becomes exasperated with his companion’s slow acceptance in his invention. Halpin’s script and Murray’s acting capture the strange times we are living in while wrapping it up in a dose of absurdism and comedy.

Hug

hug2

Writer: Ali Hardiman. Performer: Madi O’Carroll. Run time: 13.31 mins.

 

The first thing that strikes you about this monologue is the way that Cliona is dressed. Green shower cap, a blue boiler or hazmat type suit, goggles on her head and too big blue gloves offset by pink lipstick. She is creating a video diary inspired by Matt Damon’s film The Martian. The intention is that this will be left behind for future generations, to record for posterity what it was like to live through a global pandemic. It quickly becomes more than this. As she talks into the camera her video diary becomes more personal; delving into her childhood, friends, family and living situation. Like all diaries this one starts to show different strands of her life come together, pieces click into place and certain things become more visible.

Cliona met her best friend aged five in the junior infants class when there were both placed on the red table. For her it was love at first sight. Their friendship continued over the years, certainly long enough for them to see the film together at the cinema. Jack is her safe harbour but she doesn’t see what is right in front of her. He can’t keep seeing her so much as he is about to get married and start a family. This doesn’t dislodge Cliona’s self-delusion though. He is still her number one and she thinks that she can still be his. 29 days ago, he was the last person she hugged. At the time they didn’t know that lockdown was coming. He was good at hugs and it appears that she hasn’t had many throughout her life. She reflects that her mother’s hugs were very hesitant, scared, like she was afraid of breaking. There is dysfunction in her childhood. ‘One sister deceased, one sister a bitch, one brother always making their parents cry, an aunt who disappeared upstairs with strange men.’

The over-riding tone though is one of comedy. Cliona turns the painful into humour. Some people will feel sympathy, maybe like her, but many will find her difficult to take to despite the desire to paint a lighter tone. The mix of discomfort, comedy and emotional discovery have been features of previous Hardiman plays (e.g. actor in Fizzy Drinks With Two Straws, writer and actor in Disconnected) and it is a mix that works particularly well. When the moments of comedy break out of her dysfunction we get quite an insight into who she is. In the end, she decides that after this period of isolation is over, she will hug people more. It is a sweet moment that offers the hope of a less lonely road ahead.

Toffee

toffee

 Writer: Ultan Pringle. Performer: Clelia Murphy. Run time: 16.09 mins.

 

“I show up. And sure, why wouldn’t I show up?”

Aisling has stepped outside the back door, brick and window to her back, earphones in. This is a private monologue. Earlier in the day she was in the café at the National Gallery, nervous and contemplative as she was waiting for a date. To pass the time she started to think back: to how she got to where she is, her ex-husband Craig, her two children, the jobs she’s had, but mostly about her new adventure. She is a mature student at Trinity and relishing the chance to learn. Studying classics is something that she thought she would never be able to do, and she is quietly thrilled. Alongside this there is an excellent line about dating feeling “like a cow being wheeled out in front of the butcher”, which expertly and pithily captures the feeling of moving from app to real life, whatever age one is. Aisling’s date, the Italian Marianne, who looks like she doesn’t eat cake and has slight coffee stains on her teeth, shows up and the waiting was worth it. The rest of Toffee focuses on the date and the moments after.

There are hints scattered throughout that life hasn’t always been kind. She sometimes doubts herself and is aware of how different her background is to those of most of the other students. Toffee was first screened at around the same time as the tv adaptation of Normal People, both of which touch on the relationship between studying at Trinity while having little money and not coming from a well-off background. Aisling is 47, divorced, has children, knows what a privilege education is and perhaps because of the fact she had thought this life would never be available to her, she is devouring every minute of her course.

In quite a short space we really get to know Aisling and so much about her. She is an endearing character that is fully fleshed out in just a few minutes, which says a lot about Pringle’s writing. Hearing directly from her, the thoughts that she hasn’t expressed elsewhere, we gain a great insight into her character. The monologue format here is a little like being able to read through her texts; personal and direct. The title matches the character and feeling of the piece well. There is something quietly lovely about Toffee and Murphy was the perfect person for this role.

Aisling leaves the date with butterflies, with hope and excitement deep in her belly. As she looks around and smiles at a stranger, one can’t help but smile along too.

Shard

shard2

Writer: Stewart Roche. Performer: Neill Flemming. Run time: 17.02 minutes.

 

“Once you’ve seen the mask slip from society, there’s no going back.”

Our narrator is sat in a chair facing the camera head on. He is probably in his forties and looks a little tired and worn. His face and hands are grubby and there are dark shadows under his eyes. In the first few lines our narrator tells us “you know about the commune, right?”. And he begins to talk. To who we are not exactly sure but the possibilities become clearer as it goes on.

The narrative jumps back in time. Witnessing the desperate, selfish, somewhat ridiculous rush for bread and milk during the Beast from the East in 2018 triggered something in him. The everyday annoyances, troubles, the lies people tell, that had long existed inside him surfaced in a bubble of disaffection and frustration. After this he started to look for something. What? Who knows what they are looking for? He spent some time becoming a keyboard warrior before he made a connection that saw him move to a commune on the uninhabited Dawlish island off the coast of Mayo. This wasn’t just any island. In the seventies it had been gifted by John Lennon to the king of the hippies. Their commune failed but a group had recently formed that believed that it could be different. This sets in process a chain of events that are shocking, tense and unexpected.

The narrative has been very well written. Roche has done well at showing how a chain of seemingly unconnected events over several years can lead a man to make a decision which would often be seen by others as strange at best and potentially dangerous or lunatic at worst. Flemming was a great choice to embody this character. His facial expression, ticks, mannerisms, the way he eats his biscuit all go toward capturing the characters internal journey. There is an excellent use of foreshadowing at the beginning; images of blood lust, people tearing each other apart and survival come back full force. In his new path in life our narrator eventually finds a type of beautiful purity, a happiness. This also alludes to our own time as many feel the rootlessness and desire for answers and security that the narrator eventually finds. In working towards our own well being will mankind tear each other apart in a bid to be the first to an answer, to a vaccine, to be seen as in charge?

The denouement is somewhat chilling. The man at the beginning is no longer the person sat in front of us at the end. It is testament to Roche’s writing and Flemming’s performance that they take us on this journey without letting the story slip for a moment. Shard is an absorbing story that reminds how enjoyable good story telling can be.

The Pleasureometer

Writer: Jack Harte. Performer: Gerard Lee. Running time: 15.11 mins.

 

“No more hope after tonight. New regulations. The pub has to close.”

The pub has closed, and one gets the feeling that for our narrator this is far more disruptive to his life than the pandemic working its way around the globe. Many people feel the same. It was a sad day when Temple Bar effectively closed but for many it was the small local pubs shutting their doors that have had the biggest impact. Although out narrator is not here to ponder the economic and social ramifications of a long-term lockdown. No. Instead he is thinking about his story.

With a slight weariness tinged with frustration he begins to talk to us. Sat in a corner at home, crossword in hand, scotch glass beside him (although from the looks of it, not full to the brim with the finest whisky but something cheaper and weaker), he tells the story about his pub and the people he meets there. There are a group of men who share a table. Collectively known as ‘the club’, they know each other not by name but by their tag: ‘the teacher’, ‘the writer’, ‘the young lad’, and perhaps most importantly ‘himself’. ‘Himself’ is erratic in his attendance but he is the most anticipated. He is a raconteur who can keep the club laughing with his musings. Then one night he walks in holding a strange piece of equipment and with a thesis in his head. Whether he knew that this was going to trigger a series of events that would gradually build and build in comedy is doubtful, but that is what happened.

With the absence of the pub table we become the narrator’s audience, leaning in to catch every detail and waiting for the next turn in the tale. This was a good way of approaching the production as it draws the audience in and treats them almost as though they are a part of the club. Although in a theatre the laughter would roll and gather, carrying the narrative forward, The Pleasureometer still works in this format, raising a laugh and creating a sense of familiarity. Harte plotted out the key points well to ensure that The Pleasureometer would be as in place in the local pub as one screen. Professionally delivered by Gerard Lee who carries the characters slight air of grumpiness and his stifled mirth and glee that carrying this story inside of him has given. The story within a story and the creation of their own audience are excellent dramatic tricks that work well in this format.

By the end of the 15 minutes you will know what the Pleasureometer is (aside from an excellent title) and can decide how much pleasure it is going to give today.

An Unmade Bed

The New Theatre Fight Back 2020 Series

an unmade bed 2

As early as April The New Theatre set out to prove that even a global pandemic will not stop new theatre from being created and enjoyed. Twelve short monologues were written and performed from the 7th to the 24th and are now available to view on takeyourseats.ie. Free to watch, the creators are hoping for donations to help them through this unprecedented time. Although watching on a screen does not have the same atmosphere as sitting in a theatre it is great that even during a time like this that there is a space for creativity. Also, for someone like myself who has often been prevented from theatre going by illness, if gives one the chance to still enjoy new productions.

 

 

Week One – One: An Unmade Bed

Writer: Elizabeth Moynihan. Performer: Laoisa Sexton. Run time: 11.19 minutes.

 

“Will you come back? You did before.”

 

A breathy voice informs us that the speaker is alone in her bed and we learn quickly enough that the bed has become her world. Her partner has left, even though Ireland is in lockdown, and she has fevered thoughts of going to find him in London. Why did he go? How can he be safe? Clouds gather outside the window and rain begins to fall.

After this introduction the speaker circles back to the heart of her relationship with the unnamed man. Their relationship seems to have been marked by arguments and promises to change. The more she wanted to be with him the more he wanted to get drunk, get high, take life as it comes. Frustrated and increasingly desperate they argue. Her anger and disgust increases, but her longing does not subside. The monologue takes us back to the start of their relationship and its key points before it broke down irretrievably. As with many relationships it is difficult to see from the outside what held them together and their separation is less surprising to the audience than to the speaker.

Moynihan makes great use of metaphor. The unmade bed becomes a boat lost at sea and surrounded by sharks. She wonders why mackerel do not avoid sharks (“haven’t they learnt anything by now”), why the prey walks into the mouth of a predator. The breathy voice continues for the rest of the piece which probably wasn’t necessary however as we quickly see how hurt she has been by his leaving and how her internal aloneness is echoed by the outside world.

These feelings are matched by the camera work and subdued colour palette; white, browns and grey. As the weather changes the bed becomes a boat, the rumpled sheets reflecting the ocean waves, her hair splayed out like foam on the beach. The cinematography perfectly complements the monologue. It would be good to know who was responsible for filming so that they could be properly credited.

The fact that the pandemic is mentioned early on is similar to many of the other productions. Perhaps even in theatre there is little hiding space and the audience must join the speaker in her bed and wait for the sharks to search elsewhere for food.

 

 

 

 

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

the five hallie rubenhold

It is difficult to find someone who has not heard of Jack the Ripper, however far fewer people have heard of Mary Ann (Polly) Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine (Kate) Eddowes and Mary Jane (Marie Jeanette) Kelly. These are the names of the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper, and The Five is their history.

 

Historian Rubenhold managed to work out something that has bypassed most of us and that is how little is known about the women murdered by the infamous Jack the Ripper. But not only that, how little time and thought has even gone into understanding the lives of these women. History has known them only for their deaths. This book sets out to shine a light on their life stories and restore their dignity. Rubenhold does a remarkably good job at achieving this.

 

The book is broken down into five key sections; giving space to investigate the life of each of the five. Aside from being an interesting micro history of each person, the book also tackles the ‘fact’ that they were all prostitutes. This was effectively decided upon in 1888 when the newspapers latched on to the more ‘salacious’ details of their lives in order to shift papers. At the time the lines between sex work, coupling up for preservation, and full – time prostitution were so blurred as to be invisible. This was compounded by the fact that homeless women were looked down upon and assumed to be ‘fallen’ or ‘broken’ in some way. In 1887 the Metropolitan police force had been embarrassed when mistakenly arresting a woman for being a prostitute.

“Sir Charles Warrens order of the 19th July 1887 was issued in an attempt to make an        official clarification on how the police were to formally define a prostitute. It was              stated that “the police constable should not assume that any particular woman is a             common prostitute and that the police were not justified in calling any woman a      common prostitute unless she so describes herself, or has been convicted as such”.”

 

I found Kate and Marie Jeanette particularly compelling. Partly because Kate comes from the midlands like I do but also because of her restlessness and desire not to fall into the inevitable path of constant work, childbirth, lack of money and eventually death. She met Tom Conway; soldier, raconteur, chap book writer and seller, and he offered the promise of a different life. They travelled together selling chap books and making up their own songs and stories. Eventually however they fell into poverty and their partnership became strained under the weight of providing for their children, her alcoholism and his violence. It is remarkable how much about her life can be established from surviving records. It is often thought that as most people did not leave behind written sources that little can be known about them, however Rubenhold’s forensic research has given us the bones of Kate’s life that can then be shaded in by what else is known about the lives of women at the time.

 

Marie Jeanette is the one who the least is known about. At some point in her life she decided to separate herself from the place she came from and forged herself anew in London where she became a sex worker. She told some that she was from Ireland and others that she was from Wales. Her accents, interests, mannerisms and so on suggest that she had a better off start in life than most of her compatriots, so it is not surprising that she wished to keep her past to herself. Only 25 when she died, she had worked in a high – class brothel before being trafficked to the continent. She escaped and found her way back to London where she began working in Whitechapel. It would be fascinating to know more about her but after so many years it is doubtful whether more will be known than in presented here. The Five details all we know and we now have a good source for information about her life, rather than just her death.

 

The Five made a splash upon publication. Largely because it’s emergence suddenly made it clear how much of Ripper mythology has bypassed the actual lives of the women, but also because so many ‘ripperologists’ became so angry with Rubenhold and the media surrounding the books publication. Although the lives of the women have been written about before, The Five offers the most clear and extensive history to date that focuses on their actual lives rather than how their lives led them to their ultimate fate. It is excellently and diligently researched. This leaves one again wishing that there is a way to access the references with audiobooks. This is a book that is suitable for the historian and casual reader (or listener) alike. One other highlight is the insight it gives into the social conditions of late nineteenth century Whitechapel; a warren of tiny alleyways, cramped, dilapidated accommodation, often the last chance saloon for the down and out, full of alcoholism, darkness and also teeming with life. The Five was recommended to me by a friend and I have no hesitation in recommending it to others.

 

Fresh, focused and full of information and detail The Five is an important, vital and engaging history read.

 

Hallie Rubenhold The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

(Doubleday 2019)