Stigma and Stigmata
Gaybo. Bingo. Steve McQueen. Three of life’s little joys to help ease life’s endless burdens for the working class women of Ballymun in 1970’s Dublin. A life lived in strict adherence to Catholic doctrine, or as near as their hypocrisy will let them. Like the Church they so passionately defend, they might pontificate about piety, but practicing it is often another thing altogether. Instead, they delight in stealing from their neighbours winnings, ostracizing single mothers, damning women’s libers, and those who succumb to the temptations of dancing, along with anything else Father Scully deems scandalous or immoral. Including any of their own that become fallen women.
In “The Unmanageable Sisters,” Deirdre Kinahan’s new version of Michel Tremblay’s 1968 play Les Belles-Soeurs, a group of fifteen women engage in an intergenerational struggle that lays bare a heartlessness at the heart of the so called salt of the earth. Dublin women who, through ignorance or indoctrination, clung to a Catholic ethos as their daughters tried to move forward. A loose, and often dated tale, “The Unmanageable Sisters” has its fair share of problems. But it is ultimately saved by an extraordinary ensemble elevating what could have been a hard nights work into something extremely enjoyable.
If the 1970’s saw many brave women challenging the patriarchal structures of both Church and State, “The Unmanageable Sisters” are not those women. Instead, they are the curtain peepers, the gossipmongers, reveling in scandal and relishing a good downfall, especially if you have notions way above your station. Indeed, with friends, neighbours, and family like these, who needs enemies? Exalting in pettiness disguised as principles, several gather one night in the ninth floor flat of the matriarchal Ger Lawless in Ballymun Towers at Ger’s insistence. A recent winner of a million Green Shields Stamps, Ger has summoned them all to help her fill up her stamp books. The prizes might not be enough for a gloating Ger to live on, but they’re enough to make her life that little bit better. And more than enough to incite envy and jealously amongst long suffering women who don’t even look like they’ve ever won anything. As the night passes and books are filled, generations clash over how a woman should live. For if the future thinks its time for a change, the past won’t be giving in without a fight.
First performed during the year of the student riots in Paris, Tremblay’s Les Belles-Soeurs set out to challenge the societal and theatrical structures of 1960’s Quebec fifty years ago this year. Representing deeply religious, working class women caught up in the absurdity of life, speaking on stage in a frowned upon form of working class French called ‘Joual,’ Tremblay threw down the gauntlet to the Quebec establishment in a way that still reverberates today. In contrast, Kinahan’s “The Unmanageable Sisters” proves to be a far less incendiary affair. If her superb, near forensic recreation of 1970’s Dublin colloquialisms is the most grounded piece of 1970’s memorabilia, it stands out in a script that, dramaturgically, plays fast and loose with the period.
The action might take place over a single night, but it’s a night that skims the entire decade. Kicking off with a rendition of The Nolan’s Sister’s dance floor classic I’m In The Mood For Dancing, which charted at the end of 1979, we suddenly shift to alternate years from the 1970’s delivered with an equal sense of immediacy. Such as going to the cinema to watch The Towering Inferno, released in 1974. If the intention was to interrogate the decade rather than the women, it falls miserably short and highlights a surprising lack of focus. This uncharacteristic lack makes several other moments incredibly hard to swallow. One character claims to secretly go dancing in a club in Lesson Street while her friend she lives with is at choir practice. Don’t think choir practice ran that late into the night, even in the 1970’s.
While Green Shields Stamps serve as something of a weak metaphor, their real function is as a weaker narrative device designed to gather fifteen women in the one place at the one time. Here, in the absence of a substantial story, they all tell a variety of stories, as well as their own stories. Relying too heavily on the charms and quirks of its endlessly complaining characters, “The Unmanageable Sisters” is certainly fun, but not always as funny as it might have been. Yet if this makes it more talkie than theatrical, director Graham McLaren milks it for all its theatrical worth. Direct address by way of monologues and duets, or religious styled group chants, are superbly realized, with a hilarious homage to bingo, and a brilliantly realised monologue built around an endless list of names, proving to be memorable highlights.
Yet most memorable of all is its exceptional, all female ensemble of Karen Ardiff, Clare Barrett, Charlotte Bradley, Noelle Brown, Catherine Byrne, Rachael Dowling, Tina Kellegher, Lisa Lambe, Sarah Madigan, Clare Monnelly, Mary O’Driscoll, Marion O’Dwyer, Rynagh O’Grady, Caoimhe O’Malley and Catherine Walsh. Collectively they’re a sheer delight; individually, each seizes their moment when it arrives to deliver an often poignant and powerful performance.
Claiming “The Unmanageable Sisters” as inspirational women feels something of a stretch as the case isn’t effectively made. Indeed, a case could be argued that “The Unmanageable Sisters” seems uncertain whether it’s laughing with, or at, these often cartoonish caricatures of old guard women. Recognisible, yes. Indomitable, surely. Survivors, most certainly. Complicit in following orders or suffering Catholic Stockholm Syndrome, the court’s still out. But preferring to hold on to their pain, prejudice, and piety, claiming change came too late for them, is to ignore all those other women of that same place and generation who vehemently fought to embrace a better future for themselves and their daughters. Whatever its shortcoming, as the world celebrates International Women’s Day, “The Unmanageable Sisters” serves as a timely reminder that not all women want the same things, sometimes at the expense of their own self interest, and that when it comes to change, if we do not learn from, and face up to, our history rather than our nostalgia, we might well be doomed to repeat the errors of our past.
“The Unmanageable Sisters,” a new version of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-Soeurs by Deirdre Kinahan, runs at The Abbey Theatre until April 7th
For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre