‘Eclipsed’ shines light on Magdalene scandal

Since setting up in 2006, Galway theatre company Mephisto have rapidly established themselves as a force to be reckoned with.

The ambitious outfit’s latest production — a timely revival of Patricia Burke Brogan’s 1992 play Eclipsed — kicks off a run in the Town Hall Theatre in Galway tomorrow night.

With its shocking glimpse of life inside the Magdalene Laundries, Brogan’s play electrified audiences when it premiered 21 years ago. Notably, it preceded by a good few years the social outcry that began to surround the laundries from the late 1990s onward. It continues to be Galway native Brogan’s most popular work, and it has gathered awards throughout the world.

“Patricia was a novice herself and she worked in a Magdalene laundry for a week and didn’t like what she saw at all,” says Mephisto co-founder Caroline Lynch, who plays the oppressive Mother Victoria.

Significantly, Eclipsed doesn’t simply point the finger at the religious orders but observes how Irish life as a whole was complicit in the scandal.

“Mother Victoria repeats throughout that ‘no-one else wants them’,” says Lynch. “She says, ‘we look after them. We give them food, shelter and clothing, and we protect them from their own passions’. But all of the girls in the laundry have been signed in by their families. So society is indicted as well within the play.”

The production, directed by Niall Cleary, has tried to avoid being subsumed in the contemporary politics, says Lynch, and it’s far more focused on realising the emotional landscape within the play itself.

“It’s a very strong topic,” she says, “but as a play it stands on its own. It has these fantastically drawn characters, each of them with their own desires and frustrations.”

Ultimately, the play conveys that these were real, living and breathing people, and not mere news items.

“They were flesh and blood,” says Lynch. “And everyone has a spirit, everyone has a soul, whether you believe in God or not. There is something special in being alive. During the play one of the girls begs a nun to give her the keys to get out and she’s screaming, ‘we’re alive now. Now is what matters. We don’t want to say our prayers and get to Heaven and be forgiven for our sins. We want to live now’. It’s a really powerful scene.”

Following the original run of Eclipsed, the Irish playwright MJ Molloy complimented Brogan on debunking Voltaire’s spurious idea that tragedy could not be written by someone lacking testicles. One suspects that Mephisto — who have repeatedly shown a commitment to staging plays with distinctive and varied female characters — would be happy themselves to continue producing tragedies with a low testicle count.

“Not just tragedies but comedies without testicles too,” laughs Lynch. “No, it’s something that’s crept up on us through necessity. We’re choosing plays with predominately female casts because we work with a bunch of great female actors in Galway and we want to see them onstage. If you look through theatre listings on any given week you’ll see the majority of plays have five male characters in them and maybe two women. And that’s just taken for granted.

“But when you put on a play that has five women in it, and two men, it’s considered to be different somehow. It’s a shame it should be that way.”

*Eclipsed runs at Galway Town Hall, Aug 22-30. www.tht.ie


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