Caroline Burns Cooke in “And the Rope Still Tugging Her Feet.”
By Peter McDermott
The 1970s and ‘80s are proving to be a fertile source for dramatic material for stage and screen as we enter the third decade of the 21st century. “Mindhunter,” for example, is a TV series that focuses on the FBI’s grappling in the late 1970s with the latest behavioral science on serial killers, while “Chernobyl” is concerned with environmental catastrophe in the Soviet Union in 1986 and Netflix streams a documentary series ,“Who Killed Little Gregory?”, about the 1984 murder of a 4-year-old boy in rural France.
In Ireland, political violence continued unabated into the 1980s north of border, while in the Republic economic woes and church-state issues dominated the headlines. Playwright and actor Caroline Burns Cooke investigates one famous case in the latter category in her “And the Rope Still Tugging Her Feet.” In the play inspired by the “Kerry Babies” case, she takes on the roles of “mother, judge, jury and conscience.”
The Irish Echo asked Burns Cooke some questions ahead of the play’s New York run.
Tell us something about your own background.
I'm a London-born, 2nd-generation Irishwoman. My father was from Tubbercurry, Co. Sligo, my mother from County Fermanagh. Both came to England just after the war, met and settled in the Irish area of Kilburn.
Having worked mainly as an actress in the writings of others, mainly in theatre, and low-budget films, I decided to write my first solo show, and the story of the Kerry Babies, which I read in the Irish newspapers in our house at the time, had all the elements that were important to me --Catholicism, feminism and the whole shebang.
How would you summarize the episode for an American who knows nothing about it?
The Kerry Babies case took place in 1984, involving a woman of 24, Joanne Hayes, who was already exceptional, if not notorious, in a small Southern Irish town as the mother of an illegitimate child to a married man. When a baby, stabbed and strangled, washed up on White Strand Beach in Abbeydorney, Co Kerry. With this discovery, suspicion fell on Joanne and her family, who were accused of the murder and disposal of the Kerry Baby, and a national scandal ensued.
It was linked in the public mind, wasn’t it, with other high profile cases – like the tragedy in Granard, Co. Longford, for example?
With this, and other incidents around the time, along with the death of 15-year-old Ann Lovett who died in a Catholic grotto in County Longford with her stillborn child in February 1984, and the ongoing scandal of the Magdalene Laundries, hidden sexual abuse, involving clergy and otherwise, prohibition of contraception and demonization of female sexuality, rural Ireland was, in stark contrast to progressive Dublin, living in the dark ages.
In what significant ways does “And the Rope Still Tugging Her Feet” depart from the case on which it’s based?
“And The Rope” sticks closely to the historical facts. I've changed a couple of names and created the main characters with different personalities to the real people for entertainment purposes, and have amalgamated the many voices into a few pertinent characters who take on the narrative from their point of view. But it all happened, though it sounds stranger than fiction.
Tell us how it has come to be performed in New York?
I have toured the show in the UK, notably the Edinburgh and Brighton Festivals, also Prague Fringe where I won for Outstanding Performance, and played a few venues in Eire. I always thought it would be well-received in New York due the great Irish population in the city and the popularity of Irish theatre. I have been trying to come for a couple of years and was delighted to be accepted by Frigid Fringe. I'm only here for the first part of the fest, though, for six performances.
What’s next for you?
I have two other solo shows, “Proxy,” based on the American Munchausen by Proxy story of Gypsy and Dee Blanchard, and “Testament of Yootha,” about a well-loved UK 1970s sitcom star, Yootha Joyce, who hid her alcoholism and died from it at the age of 53. As you can see I love the dark side. I promise, though, even “And the Rope” has plenty of laughs amidst the sadness. There may even be a bit of a song and dance if you're lucky.
“And the Rope Still Tugging Her Feet” will be performed at New York’s Frigid Fringe, at Under St. Mark’s, 94 St. Mark’s Place (basement level of building, no elevator or wheelchair access), in the East Village. Showtimes for the play, which is directed by Colin Watkeys, are: Thursday, Feb. 20 at 5:30; Saturday, Feb. 22 at 7:10; Sunday, Feb. 23 at 1:50; Monday, Feb. 24, at 7:10; Tuesday, Feb. 25 at 5:30 and Wednesday, Feb. 26 at 10:30. Go to www.frigid.nyc for more tickets and information.