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  • Chris O'Rourke

The Pull of the Stars

Ruth McCabe and Sarah Morris in The Pull of the Stars. Image by Ros Kavanagh


It’s a perennial question it seems, women’s bodies. Along with the roles and restrictions society assigns to them. An argument often vehemently engaged in by those who’ve never experienced period pains or even the possibility of a pregnancy. Or known pregnancy complicated by poverty and disease. A plight Emma Donoghue’s feminist manifesto The Pull of the Stars sets out to address. Donoghue’s medical drama set in a makeshift maternity ward spread over three days during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. Where catching your death was a daily reality. The play’s title, from Donoghue’s 2020 novel of the same name, a head nod towards Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy set in the same era. Donoghue, with her passion for hidden women’s histories, finding a kindred spirit in the like minded Louise Lowe, a director known as a rigorous interrogator of Irish women’s history. Throw in reclaiming the legendary Dr Kathleen Lynn, activist, republican and medical renaissance woman, and you’ve all the makings of a seriously important work. Instead, The Pull of the Stars settles for enjoyable and exciting. A burlesque of flaring fireworks, all dazzle and fizzle. Emotional pyrotechnics full of ohh and ahs and excitable laughter. Sincerity and sentimentality going head to head as gut punches are sacrificed to sucker punches. To tragedy played as comedy, with horror and heartbreak tripping over laughter. The whole a physical and emotional Grand Guignol. The sanitised, Disney plus version.

Una Kavanagh, Ciara Byrne, Maeve Fitzgerald and Sarah Morris in The Pull of the Stars. Image by Ros Kavanagh

Its damning devils lurk in its murky details. Donoghue’s taut tale being stocked with enough shocks so as to border on tabloid sensationalism, which it clearly doesn’t need. Women and children dying before our eyes onstage. Placentas scrapped out by hand after a woman has just given birth to a premature stillborn. Women acting on same sex desires for vulnerable, childlike wards. Teenagers about to give birth examining their belly button wondering how the baby will slip through. Awash in the shameful stain of slavery that was the Magdalene Laundries, along with its mass graves of children, many who died from malnutrition. Una Kavanagh searing as the older Mrs Noonan ravaged by years of institutional neglect and endless pregnancies, her mind gone, her body tortured as she awaits the birth of her next nameless child whose fate will be decided by the Laundry. The Spanish Flu a minor headache when men die in blood spattered wars, women in blood spattered wards. And that’s just these three days.

Sarah Morris in The Pull of the Stars. Image by Ros Kavanagh

Keep them ignorant, the message ordained from Church and State. Not likely, says Dr. Kathleen Lynn. Maeve Fitzgerald shining as the no nonsense, openly lesbian, infinitely caring physician who’s become a social and moral pariah. If only the hospital didn’t need her. Or Nurse Julia Power. Sarah Morris an understated joy as an equally smart, maternal Florence Nightingale on the verge of an existential breakthrough. Sparked by the delightful Ghaliah Conroy’s urchin like Bridie, making herself useful so she won’t have to return to the hell of the Laundry. The future a promise for all three women, even as others look doomed to repeat history. Ruth McCabe’s stern Sister Luke doomed not to care by an uncaring Catholicism. Ciara Byrne's teenage Mary doomed to a life of child bearing. India Mullen’s well to do Mrs Garrett similarly condemned to the life expected of her.

India Mullen in The Pull of the Stars. Image by Ros Kavanagh

All of which is undermined by being initially framed as comedy. A Sisterhood of the Spanish Flu whose Chim Chim Cher-ee styled rooftop opening finds masked figures dancing against the night. Alyson Cummin’s shape shifting set, illuminated beautifully by Sinéad Wallace, transformed into a hospital ward endlessly reshaped to accommodate the screenplay demands of Donoghue’s script. Where the rabble and respectable collide. Mullen’s Mrs Garret, a kind of Margaret Dumont or Mrs Bucket, made ridiculous by the lower classes she looks down on. Almost a comic device. Donoghue’s script straining at the seams as it struggles to accommodate history, humour and heartache but, unusually, never quite finds the balance. Similarly Lowe, whose work for ANU suggests something’s awry for punches not landing as powerfully. Yet as the overplayed comedy recedes, it’s clear Lowe is what’s keeping everything on course. The wonderfully tender rooftop scene, despite concerns around age and power dynamics some might have, beautifully realised for digging deep without showing off. The final image a hopeful door to a possible future that history tells us was still some way off. Some say it’s yet to fully arrive. And what has arrived has been costly.

Ghaliah Conroy and Sarah Morris in The Pull of the Stars. Image by Ros Kavanagh

In The Pull of the Stars there’s a polarising tension between novel and play, between the theatrical and cinematic, between comedy and tragedy. One that’s never quite resolved. If it skirts close to kitsch in places, Lowe’s rigour hauls it back so as to avoid a sugar rush of excessive sentimentality. In 1918 the promise of equality for women in the promised new republic was a very real possibility. Before the 1920s saw a Catholic influenced constitution putting paid to the hopes and dreams of many women consigned to married motherhood. Ireland’s legacy for spirited women the Magdalen Laundries rather than an army of Dr Kathleen Lynns. To some The Pull of the Stars will speak to the politics of such traumas and to the women who endured them. To others it will seem little more than trauma theatre, cynically prodding emotional buttons for effect. The truth, perhaps, being it’s a little of both. Exquisitely designed and beautifully performed, wearing its blood soaked, well intentioned heart on its sleeve, there’s a lot to admire about The Pull of the Stars. It’s really quite affecting. But at moments it looks like might have been defining.

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue, directed by Louise Lowe, runs at The Gate Theatre until May 12.

For more information visit The Gate Theatre.


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