Breaking The Cycle
Limerick born Sophie Peirce-Evans, a.k.a. Lady Mary Heath, is determined to be seen. And rightly so, for she is a truly remarkable woman. A pioneering, record-breaking aviator, an athlete, a campaigner for women's rights who fought to have women accepted into the Olympic games, Heath has not been properly seen since she died in 1939, aside from the rare, spectral appearance. Unlike her contemporary, Amelia Earhart, Heath, who was seen to be disgraced in her day because of her interracial marriage and unladylike behaviour, is not seen or acknowledged by history. Her story is long overdue and well worth telling, and it would have been wonderful if Amy De Bhrún’s “I See You” had done just that. For Heath is, by far, the best thing about this brave and ambitious production. Instead, “I See You” marries Heath’s tale to a far less successful story of modern, domestic abuse which has all the finesse of a social workers checklist. The end result is a disappointing polemic on an important issue, with Heath reduced to little more than a series of anecdotal soundbites pressed into the service of the greater good.
Action unfolds in an abandoned, derelict room, its plaster cracked and broken, old wall paper peeling away from the walls, in an impressive set deign by Jack Scullion, evocatively lit by Shane Gill. A woman stands in the corner as haunting swing jazz plays, giving way to the continuous faint sound of a fan, or a single engined plane echoing the paper airplanes hanging overhead. Here we meet, and are adorably disarmed by, Lady Mary Heath with her sucky sweets, in an impassioned performance by De Bhrún. A woman who is sharp, lively, irresistibly charming and supremely intelligent, Heath is not one to hide her light under a bushel. Indeed it would impossible for anything to contain it so brightly does it shine. Heath relays some personal information, about how her father beat her mother to death when she was but an infant, then begins to expound on her central thesis that she has been unfairly, and unjustly, forgotten over time.
Following the recital of some seriously abysmal poetry, another Mary appears. A contemporary, young, pregnant woman in an abusive relationship. As Heath retreats to the shadows, Mary begins to tell her familiar tale of abuse, one that’s been told before, sadly, but told far more compellingly than is told here. Efforts to unite these women through time by way of ghostly words spoken in unison, and rhyming passages passed off as poems, prove unconvincing for being under developed. Far more satisfying is the use of simple but effective costumes, also by Scullion, whose pearl necklace and hooped earrings, sneakers and flapper dress, visually bridge the divides in times, age, and class between these two women.
A series of alternating monologues ensues in between which, either Mary or Heath, stand silent and still, wrapped in forlorn expressions of pained self absorption. Yet anecdotes soon give way to a lengthy polemic on the oppression of women presented in a heavy handed manner that leaves much to be desired. For when De Bhrún focuses her outrage into character driven, observational language and experiences, “I See You” proves to be deliciously engaging, and an intelligent, and often powerful experience. But too often characters give way to serving an all too obvious polemic which sees them trotting out well worn clichés in an extremely weak fashion, undermining often genuinely interesting insights.
‘I am woman, hear me roar,’ both women claim, and if only they did. For they don’t so much roar as lecture, and the didactic in De Bhrún's script quickly becomes overwhelming, eclipsing character and narrative. A problem compounded by a need to constantly explain to the audience what they've just seen and understood. Such as Mary’s shriek from the bottom of her soul. An underused Roxanna Nic Liam, having done all the hard work, immediately undoes it by unnecessarily explaining, with counter productive Hulk analogies, what we’ve all just witnessed. The effect is to remove Mary from the personal experience, shifting her from lived character to distracting narrator, giving unnecessary qualifications, descriptions, or information that doubles the sense of personal remove and distance. And not in a Brechtian way. As a result Mary becomes the atypical victim of domestic abuse, ‘he got me pregnant, should’ve saw the signs,’ ticking all the right boxes but losing cohesion as a character for being made subservient to the demands of the polemic. Thankfully Nic Liam is an actress of the calibre whose presence and energy make her permanently engaging, salvaging Mary and rendering her into something recognisable. One can only imagine what she might have done had De Bhrún’s script left the lecturing aside, dug deeper into Mary’s character, and given Nic Liam something of real substance to work with.
If not quite the case of the road to hell being lined with good intentions, “I See You” is something like a road to limbo which, like Heath, is both there and not there. Something director Helena Browne negotiates with great finesse for the most part, gimmicky voice overs aside, while always fighting an uphill battle. In “I See You” De Bhrún doesn’t so much channel her rage and frustration into her work so much as let it overwhelm it. There is a palpable anger and frustration refusing to be silenced, and we get that. “I See You” wants to break the cycle of abuse, the damning of women to their menstrual cycle, which has confined and undermined, and made invisible, the needs, desires, and ambition of countless women throughout the centuries. But this worthwhile polemic undermines a worthwhile play trying to say the same thing, and saying it better, obscuring its own dramatic and theatrical possibilities which, like its polemic, are not as successfully articulated as they might have been. Which is a shame, for when De Bhrún lets her characters speak, her writing is often dazzling, is certainly far more intelligent, and far more engaging than when characters become mere mouthpieces for the cause. In the end, “I See You” feels something like a promise. For, like Heath, it has ghostly presences that are fabulous and dazzling at times, deserving to be freed from the shackles that confine them. Something De Bhrún frequently shows she is supremely capable of doing.
“I See You,” by Amy De Bhrún, runs at Theatre Upstairs until May 26
For more information, visit Theatre Upstairs