Where the personal meets the political

While the 1981 hunger strikes are referenced in the new play Olwen Fouéré stars in, the Breton-Irish actress tells Alan O’Riordan that the work is about more than the North
Where the personal meets the political

WHEN Olwen Fouéré by chance came across a copy of Laurent Gaude’s play Sodome, My Love in 2009, it turned out to be the start of a sustained artistic relationship.

Fouéré, the Breton-Irish performer, went on to stage a world premiere of Gaude’s work at the Project Theatre in 2010.

Now, the pair are working together again, with Fouéré having translated Danse, Morob, a piece Gaude wrote with her in mind. It is, like Gaude’s other work, both allusive and elusive, a magic-realist fable in which a woman, led by a pack of dogs, searches for her father.

There is, though, a very specific anchor to the real world in the play. It becomes apparent when we realise that the father served in Long Kesh prison, or the Maze, as Fouéré has it in her adaptation, mythological overtones very much intended.

With the mixture of Irish history, and nationalist struggle, and a daughter’s inheritance, it’s not hard to see Fouéré’s shadow.

She grew up in Ireland after her father, a Breton activist and journalist, moved here to escape trial on charges of wartime collaboration.

He was subsequently exonerated after voluntarily returning to France.

“I do identify with it, but on an emotional level, not on a political level,” says Fouéré, as we sit in a bar near the Project after a day’s rehearsals.

“I am very invested in the legacy aspect of radical political action. Where does it go, once there has been a change? Those people who are then marginalised, what happens to them? Very often they are forgotten about, or not honoured. I feel in this country the fact that there is a big level of ignorance in relation to the hunger strikes of 1980-81. But it is so much a part of our history.”

Fouéré’s character in the play, referred to only as She, literally carries her father at one point, and this burden is one Fouéré is keen to honour as an artist, too. She and some of the show’s creative team met Laurence McKeown, one of the Maze hunger strikers.

“I would have felt very uncertain about mentioning the name [of the prison] without having engaged in some way,” says Fouéré, who met McKeown first at an academic symposium about the hunger strikes. “We had a great afternoon with him. It made me feel a lot happier because I felt a huge sense of responsibility. He came to a run through and his feedback was excellent.”

Any production that would do justice to Gaude’s vision would have to balance the references to the North without being overwhelmed by them.

“That was my worry, that people would go ‘Ah, that’s what it’s about,’” agrees Fouéré, whose next project is a part in Enda Walsh’s Ballyturk at the Abbey. “It’s not not about the North, but it’s not only about that, and that is what we were grappling with. But that is its beauty. It’s not a piece of psychological drama.”

Despite that, the piece manages to contain powerful scenes that could have fit into a kitchen-sink approach, in particular when the father emerges from prison a changed man, unable to accept his family’s embrace. That fault line, between the historic and the domestic, is an often neglected aspect of the history of political struggle.

“The mother really got to Laurence,” says Fouéré, “because that really did happen, he said, that the person who comes out is so different to the person who went in.”

Again, Fouéré can speak from personal experience, her father having been imprisoned in the 1970s, when he was arrested on suspicion of involvement with the Front de Libération de la Bretagne. He was released in an amnesty after more than 100 days in Paris’s La Santé prison.

“He met Mesrine, there,” she says with a laugh in reference to the notorious French criminal who inspired the recent two-part film.

On a more serious note, she notes: “My mother had dementia and she would say about her carers, ‘I think they’re going to put me in prison.’”

Yet even from that scene, the play does not step heavily. The father’s disappearance could be that of Mad Sweeney, into the trees. “Laurent manages to say so much,” says Fouéré, “what he’s created is a complete non-polemic piece of theatre.”

  • Danse, Morob opens at the Project Theatre, Dublin, on Thursday

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