Sonya Kelly’s latest work touches on such subjects as territory, gender and class, writes Marjorie Brennan.
The last Sonya Kelly play to visit Cork was How To Keep An Alien, which dealt with her fight to keep her Australian girlfriend Kate in Ireland. Thankfully, it all ended happily for the couple, she reveals as she prepares to return to Leeside with her latest work, Furniture.
“We eloped on December 1 last year, the day after the company reading of Furniture. We had the elopement organised but then Druid said they’d organised a reading… we literally did the reading and Kate was outside in the car.
"Garry Hynes [Druid director] said ‘where are you going?’ and I said I was going to a wedding, so we went to Galway and got married.”
Furniture was one of the big hits at the Galway International Arts Festival last year, charming audiences with its whip-smart and humorous take on relationships. Now Druid have brought the show on the road and Kelly, a passionate advocate of theatre for all, couldn’t be happier.
“Touring shows is so important — to not just stick to festivals and the Pale,” she says.
Dublin native Kelly is particularly looking forward to the performance at Cork’s Everyman theatre, given her roots in the Rebel county.
“I wouldn’t dream of missing Cork. My mother’s from Blackrock, and I’ve always gone to the Everyman with my work. It’s so much fun, and the audiences are so giving. My mom lived in Cork until she was 12 or 13. Our house was always filled with stories from Cork. I’m a jackeen but a jackeen with rural notions,” she laughs.
Kelly is one of Irish theatre’s brightest talents but has been steeped in the theatre since her previous life as an actor.
“I spent a long time as an actor, 18 years or so, before I really got into writing. I really love and enjoy acting but I was at a point where I couldn’t graduate to or out of certain roles.
"I had a yearning to shake free from being an interpretative artist to a creative artist, to have some kind of autonomy or agency over my journey.”
Kelly’s debut play The Wheelchair on my Face won a Fringe First award at Edinburgh in 2012 and her one-woman show How to Keep an Alien took the Best Production Award at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2014. The impetus for her next project came from an unexpected source.
“I didn’t want to write another story about me. Then Waking The Feminists happened and I went ‘ok, there’s no point in complaining, how am I going to contribute to this?’
"So, Furniture, in a way, came out of that. I looked at what was being made and thought it was wonderful but didn’t see any slick contemporary comedy about the condition of being human, as well as the condition of being Irish.”
Kelly wanted to centre the play on a subject that was relatable to audiences.
“It’s so simple it’s hard to imagine it’s dramatic. When you think of the environment you live in, that’s your territory, and the furniture is how you set-dress your territory. When that’s challenged in any way it becomes primal, and in the play we have three different duologues, with different scenarios around an item of furniture that triggers a clash of values.
“It is taking a simple subject and really drilling in. It connects to macro issues like gender, class, everything.
The structure of the play also takes into account how the way people view drama has changed. “With Furniture, I try to honour how people absorb information and watch things now. So it’s three 27-minute segments in the whole show. That’s how people watch all these streamed shows now. It’s a connection to how people absorb drama at the moment. It’s also about the craic, and people really need a laugh in this country.”
Kelly’s talents continue to be in demand and she is working on another play and some television projects. She likes to pace herself, she says.
“I love things that happen slowly, I’m never in a hurry for work to come out if it’s not ready. It’s always about the idea.”