HAVING scored a massive hit with her one-woman show, The Wheelchair on My Face, actress and comedian, Sonya Kelly (from The Savage Eye) returns to the stage on Thursday with more autobiographical theatre. The colourfully titled How to Keep an Alien, has its humorous side but the show is serious, too.
“Wheelchair was funny with sad bits,” says Kelly. “This one is funny with serious bits.”
Produced by Rough Magic, Alien is one of the headline shows at this year’s Tiger Dublin Fringe festival. The play charts the Offaly woman’s struggles to prove to Irish immigration authorities that her relationship with her Australian girlfriend, Kate, is ‘real’, so Kate can stay in the country
“Initially, Kate came over on a one-year work visa. But then she had to leave, because there was a prohibitive bar where, if you didn’t earn €60,000 or more, you had to go home.”
This pair applied for a ‘de facto’ relationship visa, which brought its own headaches. “You have to accrue two years’ worth of dated documentary evidence that you exist as a couple,” says Kelly.
“There are 27 rules and regulations, and let’s just say that they are the opposite of sexy. You’re at a point in your relationship where there should be a sense of spontaneity and freedom, but, actually, you’re just collecting receipts and putting them into a dossier for some stranger to look at.”
The experience politicised Kelly about immigration. “I learned about the policies around asylum-seekers in Ireland, how they’re living on €19.50 a week, sleeping in bunk-beds, not able to cook their own dinner. These were elements of my own government’s policies that I was blithely ignorant of beforehand. So the show is, in part, a vessel for bringing one or two issues to the fore.”
Kelly draws parallels between immigrants to contemporary Ireland and the Irish ancestors of her girlfriend. The latter’s great-great-grandparents emigrated from Ireland 150 years ago on a ship called the Erin-go-Bragh. An onboard breakout of typhoid tarred the passengers by association and they struggled to find work when they arrived in Queensland.
Despite its socio-political dimensions, Kelly’s comic stylings remain the engine of the show. “The opening 20 minutes is a send-up of the process of making a play, and of how seriously people take themselves,” she says. “It’s about a crisis I had in the rehearsal room one day where I thought ‘What am I doing? I’m pretending to be fake people for real people’s amusement’.”
Kelly says Wheelchair and Alien have allowed her to blend comedy with gravity or sentiment. “It’s probably why I don’t do so much stand-up in clubs anymore,” she says. “Just being funny is not satisfying enough, without there being something else, as well. In a comedy club, you can’t allow five or six minutes of your set to be sad or interesting. You have to be funny every 15 seconds. So, I love this method, where I can bring humour and pathos so close together.”
Humour and pathos were the big draw of The Wheelchair on my Face, in which Kelly recalled a childhood made weird and wonderful by undiagnosed myopia, while evoking the strangeness of Ireland in the 1980s. “I think the play resonated with people because it reminded them of a pre-Perestroika Ireland, when Ireland was the Eastern Europe of Western Europe,” says Kelly.
Gina Moxley is director for Alien, as she was for The Wheelchair on My Face. Kelly credits Moxley with broadening the political discussion in the new play. “Gina has a remarkable intellect and a gift for getting to the truth of a piece,” says Kelly. “She understands how the personal becomes political and she’s very good at evoking that.”
The show needs that socio-political edge, says Moxley. “Otherwise, it just becomes self-indulgent. Why do I care about Sonya falling in love with Kate? It has to be seen in a bigger architecture than just this one little element.”
Moxley is a distinguished actor and writer. She has just finished performing in an acclaimed run of Bush Moukarzel’s play, Lippy, in the Edinburgh Fringe. But it is to directing that the Cork native has been drawn in recent years, as a dramaturg on Kelly’s shows and on other autobiographical pieces, by Ella Daly and Stefanie Preissner.
“I had wanted to do it for a long time and it was only by a chance conversation, with Sonya, that it happened,” Moxley says. “But it’s really worked out well. I don’t know what the grandiose term is — dramaturg or script advisor — but, basically, I’m the one cracking the whip.”
Kelly attributes much of the success of Wheelchair to their dynamic. “Even when she knows I’ve worked very hard on it, Gina has the courage to say it’s not right. It’s a bit like digging to the centre of the Earth with a spoon. Every once in awhile, I’ll put the spoon down and say ‘finished’. And Gina will put the spoon back in my hand and say ‘No, you’re not’.”
Whatever the cutlery, the dig is going well.