Sisters doin’ it to themselves

Aoife Williamson (standing, left) as Linda Lawless and Jo Kinsella (standing, right) as her mother Ger during the reading of “Unmanageable Sisters.”

By Orla O’Sullivan

You would expect a play titled, “The Unmanageable Sisters” to be fun, and it is, initially, anyhow.

Deirdre Kinahan’s adaptation to an Irish context of a groundbreaking 1965 play set in Quebec brought 15 Irish women to the stage of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts for a reading this month.

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Those hoping to get a taste of that once-off event, staged by Origin Theatre as part of its European Month of Culture (with events continuing until Sunday, will have to travel to Ireland.

Kinahan’s play, commissioned by Ireland’s national theatre, the Abbey, returns for a run from June 14 to Aug. 3, following a popular run in 2018.

The title has immediate appeal for any woman with rebellious/feminist tendencies, or who has simply had sisters.

And these women, with their scalding, Dublin wit, are a handful. As their sisters before them in “Les Belles-Soeurs,” which portrayed working-class women in Quebec, Kinahan’s women give voice to their difficult lives—and vulgar slang.

They give us as the outset a sense of their constricted lives, by recounting in chorus their almost identical routine every day of the week. Each day starts: “I wake up, put a batch on the grill and yell at the kids…” and ends with, “… then we put on the telly...”

Along the way, “bollicky goes to work,” though, as one of the group interjects, “not my fella! He’s on the dole [unemployed].”

It’s very entertaining, but even this chorus-style treatment, one of many nice directorial touches by Conor Bagley, comes to feel formulaic, by the time we get to final chorus—the women’s collective profession of their love of bingo.

There is, granted, an impressive release of energy in the scene, which comes to an orgasmic build, suggesting that bingo is the safe sublimation of these impoverished women’s desires.

They are trapped in their small, Ballymun flats, (apartments), in the echo chamber of priests telling them what they can do, and above all, by their biology. One of the sisters, Rose, who life has made more of a thorn, embodies this.

Rose (Rosemary Fine) notes in a powerfully dark monologue, that she is “44 with a rake of kids from teens to toddlers, and another on the way.”

And yet, she tells us elsewhere, “I’m not interested in seein’ things different’.” Complaints are safe; change is not.

As Rose’s sister Gabi (Brona Crehan) observes elsewhere in the play, some girl’s fella “would have to be an eejit to be lettin’ her do the women’s lib.”

This idea, as best-selling feminist author Marilyn French identified, that women are often the greatest enforcers of patriarchy, is the most interesting in the play.

The setting, a few sisters and mostly friends, coming together to help an overbearing sister claim a huge competition win, ignites rivalries within the older generation. And there are tensions with the younger generation because they question the double standards for women and their proscribed place.

However, the often wonderfully read play started to drag before two-and-a-half hours was up.

Even as parody, it felt too much like a formulaic response to the Waking the Feminists movement that began in protest at the Abbey’s substantial exclusion of women playwrights from its 1916 commemorative program. WTF expanded to express concerns such as the lack of women’s roles.

It’s great to see a play with so many female characters—there’s not one male character. But the unrelenting anti-men (#MeToo) and anti-Church (dancing categorically a sin in the 1970s?) line, the token inclusion of characters from the Magdalene Laundries (Catholic-run “reform” workhouses for unmarried mothers) started to add up like a checklist while the play didn’t really add up. What should have been the catalytic return of the “fallen” sister, Patsey, was anti-climactic.

Still, it was worth it for the rare novelty of seeing Charlotte Moore, co-founder of the Irish Repertory Theatre, acting rather than directing. She plays an allegedly gaga, but sly character, of whom Lloyd Cole might say, “she’s inappropriate but then she’s much more fun.”

Anyone catching the Abbey production can enjoy the conversational zingers. For example, when the disembodied voice of the husband downstairs from off-stage threatens to call the guards (police) if the women don’t stop making so much noise, Rose snaps back. “Go ahead! We could do with some men up here.”

And Dubliners, especially those familiar with the petty snobbery of the Glasnevin-Ballymun divide, should particularly enjoy local references from the 19A bus to a sanctimonious monologue given by the one who got away.

As Lilly de Courcy (Orlagh Cassidy) says, “Once you taste life in Glasnevin you can never look back. I can see myself looking at my polished floor and listening to ‘Songs of Praise.’”

“The Unmanageable Sisters” by Deirdre Kinahan and directed by Conor Bagley was read by a cast of 15: Aoife Williamson, Jo Kinsella, Rosemary Fine, Maeve Price, Brona Crehan, Polly McKie, Orlagh Cassidy, Andrea Lynn Green, Paula Nance, Charlotte Moore, Clare O’Malley, Sarah Street, Rachel Pickup, Maria Deasy and Annie Hagg.