For Irish playwright and poet Jaki McCarrick, travelling to the Vancouver area – and White Rock in particular – to see the Canadian premiere of her play Belfast Girls was a natural decision.
“Yes, I’m coming over,” she told Peace Arch News, on the line from her home in Dundalk, Ireland.
“Why not? Life’s short. It’s very exciting,”
She wouldn’t miss the chance, she said, to experience “a lovely process” of rediscovering her characters through the eyes of others.
“I have a lot of interest – I think it’s fantastic if someone does your work.”
While McCarrick won’t touch down at YVR in time to see the gala opening of director Wendy Bollard’s Peninsula Productions’ version tonight (Friday) at Coast Capital Playhouse, she will be there to catch the March 11 closing night in White Rock – and likely several performances when it moves to The Cultch in Vancouver East for a March 15-18 run.
“My first play (The Mushroom Pickers), I think I saw it every night, until they eventually told me I ought to go home,” she chuckled.
“I love my characters and I love greeting them again – I always think that’s wonderful. It happened with the Chicago production of Belfast Girls (the North American premiere in 2015) – the way an actor might see or interpret a character will reveal things you haven’t seen about them.”
There are rich characters indeed in Belfast Girls, a gritty drama set on a sailing ship bound for Australia in 1850 – and they’re fresh anew to McCarrick, who said she is currently working on a screen adaptation.
Belfast Girls focuses on five young women whose passage was arranged through Earl Grey’s ‘orphan scheme’ – designed to send girls of ‘good character’ to a new life.
For the women, it was a desperate chance to escape the great famine and a grim future of workhouses or prostitution. For the authorities in Ireland it was an opportunity to rid themselves of “undesirables” – little wonder that the women who ended up on the long voyage were not exactly what the Australians had been led to expect.
Born in London, of Irish parents, McCarrick, studied theatre in the U.K. and philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin. She eventually settled in Dundalk – a town close to the border with Northern Ireland, about 50 miles north of Dublin and some 50 miles south of Belfast – in 2006.
She said her anger at economic and political decisions in the wake of the worldwide recession in 2008 – moves which bankrupted the country and led to an exodus of Ireland’s young reminiscent of the famine of the mid-1800s – was one of the inspirations for a play which has ample contemporary resonance in its limning of class warfare, racial bigotry and misogyny.
“I was looking at the past through the present – even the language is quite modern here and there,” she said.
But there were other inspirations, she said.
Her 2010 play Leopoldville – a recession-era drama about a gang of young men robbing a pub in a border town in Ireland, is a very violent, all-male piece.
“I remember being in a rehearsal and thinking ‘you know what? – the next play I write, I want it to be all women’. I put that in the drawer of my mind.”
Discovering that a McCarrick from Sligo – where her father’s family come from – was among the register of some 4,000 women shipped to Australia in the 19th century was another inspiration.
It led her Australian historian Trevor McLaughlin’s 1991 study of the Irish famine orphans, Barefoot and Pregnant, which first exposed her to the chequered history of Earl Grey’s scheme.
“And when I discovered the most obscene and boisterous of the ‘orphans’ were the Belfast girls from the north, I knew there was my all-female show,” she said.
The history provided rich material for the kind of raw, no-holds barred theatre McCarrick likes best, she added (and Belfast Girls, it should be noted is presented with a warning of extremely coarse language and violence).
“I like two things to happen when I go to see a play. I like it to feel real – I think that’s why I like a lot of American plays – and I like it to feel harsh. I don’t like lyricism – and a lot of Irish drama is very lyrical.”
She also admits a fascination with the work of French playwright Antoine Artaud, renowned for his ‘Theatre of Cruelty.’
“It’s the idea of using shocking imagery as a catharsis – I think it works, and it creates a sort of real believability that people can connect with,” she said.
For ticket information, visit www.peninsulaproductions.org