I’m standing in a back street on Dublin’s northside watching a scene unfold from a thousand thrillers: A patrol car slows down to observe a group of rambunctious youths milling around by a heavily graffitied wall. Appearances can be deceptive, though. The gardaí come to a stop but move on once they’ve been assured there’s no cause for concern and the commotion is in fact a photo call for a play rather than anything suspect.
Expectations and consequences, however, offer a neat parallel to the play in question, Asking For It, the eagerly awaited stage adaptation of the novel by Louise O’Neill.
Later on, their obligations to the photographer fulfilled, the cast and crew gather in the nearby rehearsal rooms for their first day of work on the new production. The energy of the young cast is palpable and there is an air of excitement akin to the first day of school, when there is a buzz of anticipation at the prospect of new adventures and friendships to be made.
Actor and Fair City star Seán Doyle, who plays the role of Seán in the play, assures me he is sweating not because of first-day nerves but rather his exertions after getting a flat tyre on his bike. He loved O’Neill’s book and can’t wait to get started.
“I read the book twice,” he says. “It was really gripping, like a mix of American Psycho and Twilight.”
The role of adapting the play has been given to Meadhbh McHugh, a Galway native now living in New York, whose acclaimed debut Helen and I was staged by Druid in 2016. She has written the script in collaboration with director Annabelle Comyn.
While she feels the responsibility of adapting someone else’s work, she is happy at the result.
“It is someone’s artistic baby and you have to respect it and treat it well. I’ve sort of been living in Louise O’Neill’s head for the past year,” she says laughing.
The book is fantastic and such a trenchant depiction of rape culture. It was a huge hit for a reason. We have done a stage adaptation but I think everyone, including Louise, will recognise the spirit of the book.
“Obviously you have to adapt the story to the medium of the stage which requires restructuring and thinking about things differently, but I think fans of the book will definitely recognise the characters and the story as they loved it.”
Asking For It deals with the violent sexual assault of teenager Emma O’Donovan, and its aftermath. The themes of the play are particularly relevant now, says McHugh.
“It was an interesting time to be writing it because the conversation has blown up about sexual assault and gender relations, especially with the #MeToo movement. I have been immersed in all of this for the last year. We are at a moment of reckoning and honesty and we are having conversations we would never have had before. I think it is really important to use this moment to think and talk about these things and hopefully push for change.”
According to McHugh, while the content of the play may be brutal, the message it conveys is a necessary one.
The events of the story are the events of the story; they have to be told and we have to face them. Teenagers are living it. We are learning now that brushing things under the carpet or not talking about them is a recipe for disaster.
Also at the first day of rehearsals is Julie Kelleher, artistic director of the Everyman Theatre in Cork, who is understandably delighted at scoring a huge coup in bringing the world premiere to Cork, in association with the Abbey.
“The reason we wanted to stage it was because we felt it was an urgent piece of work that people needed to talk about… we saw the play as a kind of conduit to have that conversation, for people to come as a family or a group of friends and engage with some of the ideas of consent that the play is talking about,” she says.
While the female-led team behind Asking For It is significant given the efforts of the Waking the Feminists movement to increase women’s participation in theatre, Kelleher says diversity is also about more than gender.
“When I started at the Everyman four years ago, I wanted to see increased representation of women on stage. There was a limit to what we could do on our own and there were lots of people who were willing and interested to pick up the reins with us, including the Abbey, who have come on board with this. They are intent on redressing the balance, not only where women are concerned, but also in terms of where work originates from and it not being as Dublin-centric as it was. That visibility for artists making work in the regions is really important.”
In this respect, the fact Asking For It is having its world premiere in Cork is notable, says Kelleher. “Louise is obviously a Cork writer but the producer Anne Clarke, who is also a Cork woman, has been an amazing facilitator. It is very much a Cork effort and we were all very intent that it would be a Cork premiere. The idea that world-class theatre can be and is being made in Cork, that is really important to us at the Everyman.”
Annabelle Comyn is the director of the play and describes the book as like a “punch to the stomach”. While she is hoping for an equally visceral reaction to the play, she says there is also an intimacy to the text that she wants to capture.
“In the book, you are dealing with the inside of [main character] Emma’s head, her voice is always with you. It’s about finding a way that we can connect with her voice, working with sound and audio-visual and all those things to help us create that intimacy with Emma.”
Eventually, the room is shushed as the cast sit down for the table read, the first time everyone involved in the production gathers to read through the script. Clarke and Comyn say a few words before, as is traditional, everyone introduces themselves by name and job. The initial giddiness gives way to a more professional atmosphere as the actors read from the script.
While the dramatic intensity is dialled down, within minutes you can see the characters emerge; the banter between the male characters has a believable and humorous edge while it’s easy to imagine the girls as frenemies, warm and supportive in one breath, bitchy and sarcastic in the next.
The tone shifts as the actors read through the sexual assault that is at the heart of the play and the action mainly switches to Emma and her family as they deal with the repercussions. When the read-through finishes a barely-felt two hours later, I feel myself exhale and wonder how the cast will last weeks of rehearsal and performance. I’m not the only one; when I speak to Lauren Coe, who carries much of the play as Emma, after the read-through, she is restoring her equilibrium.
“I feel a bit sick, a bit funny, a bit shaky. I was just talking to Sue Mythen, our movement director, who told me that even saying those words, the imagination brings you to such places that you are experiencing it,” she says.
How does it feel to be playing a role that will put her through the psychological and emotional wringer for such a prolonged period?
“I don’t know — ask me in a couple of weeks,” she says. “When I read the book, I felt like I really understood the character. It’s so good the way it’s written because it’s first-person and you get to see her perspective on everything and everyone. I feel like I can kind of look out through her eyes already, because of the book. I hope I do Emma justice.”
I don’t think she needs to worry.