A TRAVELLING freak show that has come to the end of the line is the subject of Cork-born writer, Lynda Radley’s play, Futureproof. The stars of Riley’s Odditorium are a hermaphrodite called George/Georgina; Tiny, the world’s fattest man; Countess Marketa, an armless bearded lady; conjoined twins, Millie and Lillie; and Serena, a mermaid.
The play, which will be performed at the Everyman in Cork for the Midsummer Festival, was originally commissioned by the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and had its award-winning first run in Scotland in 2011. It raises questions about the struggle for selfhood and bodily autonomy. The freaks have to reinvent themselves for the contemporary world. The original production was “very much sepia-toned Victoriana”, says director Tom Creed. This new production references make-over culture and competitive cosmetic surgery.
Creed, who first worked with Radley at UCC’s Dramat nearly two decades ago, says the playwright had unfinished business with the play. As such, they’ve approached the production with a fresh eye.
“We haven’t changed it that much. It has still the same characters and the same story but we went back to some previous drafts and wrote new material, clearing up some ideas in the play. It’s a great opportunity for Lynda to have another go at it. The more we worked on it, the more excited I became about it. It now has a timeless setting and more contemporary concerns.”
Creed describes the language of the play as a kind of poetic or magical realism. “I guess we’re approaching it as if it’s realism. There’s the dirt and sweat of the fairground and we’re trying to make the situation on stage as real as possible. The freak show people pitch up on waste ground, just outside a town. They have eaten their horse for supper because they have no food. They are regularly being chased out of towns because they’re seen as undesirable people putting on a seedy show.”
It is in a moment of crisis that Riley, the manager, has a revelation which is that his cast of oddities has to change.
As Creed points out, it’s not easy for the fattest man in the world to lose weight or for the bearded armless lady to shave. There are all kinds of challenges for the freaks who have been dressed by costume designer, Deirdre Dwyer. “She’s working with fat suits and prosthetics. We’re trying to do everything as naturalistic as possible — if that makes sense.
“When it comes to thinking about the conjoined twins and the hermaphrodite, it’s hard to think about how they might change. This precipitates the drama of the play. It has a lot of humour in it and a lot of truth. I think it’s an exciting story.”
The play is about the cast’s quest to give audiences what they want. “Do you try to prejudge what audiences want and try to give them that, or do you try to be more true to yourself? As someone who has made his life in the performing arts, that’s something I think about a lot. And I’m interested in a lot of different things as an audience member. What I want to do is give people something they haven’t seen before; something that is surprising and clear, truthful and well made.”
Bodily autonomy is a big theme in Futureproof. “Somebody in the play asks ‘Is it my body or not?’ While it’s not a play about the 8th amendment, it certainly questions what rights we have with our bodies,” says Creed.
The play had to deal with bodily issues of a different kind last month when one of its stars, West Cork actress Ayoola Smart, had to drop out of the cast after suffering concussion when she was hit by a child’s fidget spinner in a shopping centre. Luckily, an understudy stepped up, and the show is on track to be one of the highlights of Cork Midsummer Festival.