Ailís Ní Ríain's Desolate Heaven comes to Cork's Everyman

THE Irish premiere of writer and composer Ailís Ní Ríain’s play, Desolate Heaven, opens at the Everyman in Cork in a co-production with the Granary Theatre on Feb 3. Directed by Tony McCleane-Fay, Desolate Heaven stars Mary McEvoy, who plays three eccentric women in their late 50s.

Ailís Ní Ríain's Desolate Heaven comes to Cork's Everyman

The drama centres around two young girls, aged 12 and 13, who run away from their homes. They are played by Irene Kelleher and Áine Ryan, two actresses in their 20s.

Desolate Heaven was inspired by Ní Ríain’s experience of having to care for her mother when she was a teenager. (Her mother is now recovered and will attend the play.) “While the idea for the play came from my own experience, it’s not about me. The genesis of the idea came from young people who are isolated within their homes with one parent. They have more responsibility than they should have as well as an odd connection to their parents whereby they’re almost in charge.”

One of the girls wants to leave home; the other doesn’t. “It’s about a character called Orlaith (Irene Kelleher) using her strength to run away. She’s the stronger of the two in terms of grit. She gets Sive (Áine Ryan) to run away with her. It’s questionable whether or not Orlaith’s father needs to be cared for by his daughter. He seems to be suffering a grand malaise with life. Orlaith can see that for what it is and doesn’t want to be held back by it anymore.”

However, Sive’s situation is more difficult. Her mother has broken her back. “Sive is completely under her mother’s thumb and is berated and chastised by her. She feels a great responsibility towards her mother.”

Ní Ríain describes the play, which premiered in London’s 503 Theatre last year, as having distinct elements. She says it’s a combination of psychological realism, a road trip and a fairytale fantasy. “The girls meet three strikingly independent women when they’re on the road. They give the girls help for the next stage of their journey. But the play is basically about the relationship of the two girls. It’s about their love for each other.”

Ní Ríain says the nature of this love is open to interpretation. It could be romantic or it could just be a strong friendship.

“The two girls are versions of me, really. I understand the story from both their points of view. It’s difficult to admit that when you see what happens at the end.”

If there’s a message in the play, Ní Ríain says that often when a person breaks free of a bad situation, another prison awaits them if they haven’t fully thought out what they’re doing. “The play is a tragedy although I’m reluctant to say that as I want the audience to read into it what they want. Some people will say that Orlaith abuses Sive. But I see it from a number of perspectives. I can imagine that the actions that take place arise out of huge confusion and a feeling that power is being lost, forever. In that situation, people do drastic things.”

In writing the play, Ní Ríain was keen to include a strong role for an older actress.

“I don’t see enough older actresses getting interesting roles on stage. I don’t see their experience being taken advantage of. I damn well want to see older actresses on stage. The women are completely self reliant. They’re tough and their function in the play is to help the girls get to the next stage in their journey. A fairytale is being told by each of them and there is a revelation from the third woman.”

Based in the UK, Ní Ríain, a UCC graduate originally from Cork, is best known as an accomplished composer. She had her Carnegie Hall debut in 2008 and her work has been commissioned and broadcast on RTÉ and BBC radio. Last year, Ní Ríain’s play, The Tallest Man in The World, had a public reading by Corcadorca as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival.

Ní Ríain says she is interested in cross discipline collaboration. “As a composer, I collaborate with visual artists and people who make experimental films; anything that can add a layer to an artist’s work.”

Ní Ríain says that while writing words is a very separate discipline to contemporary classical music, she has a need to express herself in different forms. “I just go with it and try to trust it. Neither writing nor composing comes easily to me. Ideas and visions for things come to me, but the sitting down and writing is something I find very difficult. So much crafting is necessary, as well as so much editing. When you think of the word ‘playwright’, it comes from ‘play wrought’. There’s that idea of wroughting; the handling of material to try and make it good.”

In her writing, Ní Ríain endeavours to always say something of either originality or profundity. “One hopes to follow that through with skill and technique. All that lies quite heavily on me. Because I’m fairly well established as a composer, in some respects, there’s no need for me to express myself in words. But for me, it’s a profound need. Words can always say more than music because they can’t hide. There’s no room for being abstract in a play. You have to put your marker down and express your point of view and tell your story.”

Ní Ríain is quite driven about her writing. “I wouldn’t write for theatre unless I felt I could express the things that deeply concern me. I probably don’t have a frivolous play in me or an everyday story to tell. Other people do that so well. But I know that isn’t my strength. I also know that there’s no point whatsoever in writing a play purely for my own interests.

“I have to write something that I believe will have some resonance for audiences.”

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