Our history of shame about sex laid bare

SPECTATORS of the live dance-art show, Witches, will have to wake early or stay up late to watch it.

Our history of shame about sex laid bare

The outdoor show, which runs for four nights, from Friday, over the summer solstice weekend, begins at 4am. Audience members must gather at the Lough Road, in Cork City, for the performance.

Witches is the brainchild of Cork choreographer, Ruairí Donovan. “I’ve been away on tour for the last three years, on and off, so it was important for me to look at home for this piece,” he says. “Thinking about home made me think about the mother. There’s been a lot of violence around the treatment of female bodies in the Irish State, lately, with the Magdalene laundries, the X case legislation, and everything that’s been going on over the last 12 months, so it’s a response to that. I didn’t want to dwell on the negative aspects of what’s happening, but to take the female form and celebrate it, and to look at it further back in our ancestry and Celtic roots, at a time when the female was regarded in reverence. I wanted to create a spectacle that could be shared across the city.”

Witches will be performed by five professional dancers and 30 volunteers, local women from “all walks of life,” some of them first-time dancers. The show involves nudity.

“It comes from the idea of taking ownership of the body and reclaiming it,” says Donovan. “There’s a disconnection in Irish culture about our relationships to our own bodies. We’re using nudity, not in a gratuitous way, but as a form of expression. The dancers are engaging in quite an intense physical practice. Sometimes, there’s a liberation that comes when the clothes are shed. It’s quite a beautiful thing. I think it’s going be very special.”

Conflicted Theatre’s adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic 19th century novel, The Scarlet Letter — another production in the ‘We Live Here’ strand of the Cork Midsummer Festival — also explores Ireland’s uneasy relationship with sexuality and its troubled history of sexual abuse.

“The women of the Magdalene laundries were forced into a silence,” says Julie Kelleher, the lead actress. “Not only was silence pushed upon them, there was a general silence all around them — a kind of looking straight ahead and ignoring everything that was going on. The government, and the plain people of Ireland, treated their circumstances with total silence. It has become clear that nobody was unaware of what was going on, just like there is nobody who is unaware of the persecution of the woman in The Scarlet Letter, yet there’s an assumed feeling that that’s the way it has to be. Otherwise, we might be in danger of being the person who’s on the outside. All that silence is predicated on shame and a state of collective denial.”

The play transplants Hawthorne’s puritanical, 17th-century Boston to a village in modern Ireland, but the heroine’s bind is much the same. After conceiving an illegitimate child, she is forced to wear a prominent letter ‘A’ on her dress as a mark of shame. Her refusal to name the child’s father enrages her husband, who was assumed lost at sea; he sets off to unmask the lover. It’s a timeless story.

“It’s a cat-and-mouse game, really,” says Kelleher. “There is also a struggle between the characters’ public faces and private suffering, and the central character, as a kind of feminine heroine, is a very strong, independent woman for the time Hawthorne was writing about.

“She says she won’t give her child up, even though people question her ability to look after her. There’s something about the way she comports herself in the face of being ostracised by her community. The way she bears up under that pressure, and those injustices, appeals to me.”

One of the most playful productions in the ‘We Live Here’ strand is Makeshift Ensemble’s Exit Strategy, which is prompted in part by the director, Eszter Nemethi’s move from Hungary to Cork eight years ago. The play uses game theory to examine why people leave a country, relationships or ideas, and to examine other exiting strategies, such as why companies eject people. The audience responds to questions in a yes/no format, the answers dictating which scenes come next, and which character takes centre stage.

“Sometimes, people don’t leave physically, but leave in their heads,” says Nemethi. “There’s another kind of escapism, which is not engaging, or inactivity — where that is a form of quitting, of not actively participating, and what happens then. It’s called the ‘boiling frogs’ syndrome — when you slowly heat up the water, the frog will eventually die, but if you throw in the frog when the water is boiled, the frog will jump out.”

Exit Strategy’s games have findings from two work-in-progress productions earlier in the year. “Sometimes, you expect an answer and people go against it,” says Nemethi. “I would have thought that it is a fairly accepted notion that captains don’t leave sinking ships, but everyone said they would leave the ship. One of the questions is ‘should you be financially independent by 24 years of age?’ Most people that we asked the question to said ‘yes’, but most of the people we asked would have been in that age category, and probably most of them wouldn’t have been financially independent. It makes you wonder.”

* Cork Midsummer Festival runs from Friday, Jun 21 — Sunday, Jun 30; www.corkmidsummer.com.

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