LOUISE O'NEILL: I could hear someone quietly sobbing, and jolted when I realised it was me

“Are you nervous?” This was the question people kept asking me before the premiere of Asking For It, the stage adaptation of my novel of the same name, writes Louise O’Neill.

‘No’, I replied honestly. All I had to do was turn up on the night, looking fancy, thanks to my glam-squad of Deirdre Collins, Siobhan O’Mahony, and Eva Crowley. Before I left the Metropole hotel, the makeup artist jokingly warned me not to cry, as she applied another coat of liquid eyeliner, and I told her not to be silly. Why would I cry? I wrote the book. I know how the story ends.

I thought I knew. Oh, I thought I knew. But nothing could have prepared me for what I saw on that stage. The first act was a whirl of youthful energy and raw sexuality, cut through with an undercurrent of crackling tension. During the party scene, the music felt as if it was pulsating in my veins, my heart racing, and my throat closing up with dread.

As the huge screen splintered into broken images, with Emma’s voice narrating the scene, I desperately wished for a way to save her from her inevitable fate. I could hear someone quietly sobbing, and jolted when I realised it was me.

The second act proved even more devastating, the impact of the rape on Emma and her family fully unveiled. Sexual violence doesn’t just affect the person involved; it has a ripple effect, bleeding out to the victim’s friends and relatives, and the community at large. “We are under siege,” Emma’s mother says, as the phone keeps ringing and ringing, the grating sound burrowing its way under the skin, adding to the general sense of claustrophobia and paranoia. When the lights went dark, the audience sat there stunned, shell-shocked, unable to move. Someone began to clap, and everyone else joined in, jumping to their feet for a standing ovation, tears streaming down their faces. My father stood up, and then he fell back on his chair. “My legs,” he said, by way of explanation. That was when I noticed that my own legs were violently shaking, too.

I have spent the last few days trying to process the experience. I never felt particularly precious about handing the book over to Meadhbh McHugh, the playwright. I don’t feel ownership over Asking For It. Unfortunately, the story is far too universal for me to feel as if it belongs to me. But, strangely, as I sat in the audience that night, it was the first time I realised how shattering the story is.

My heart broke for Emma, and for every person in the world who has been the victim of sexual violence. How many of us there are. A woman posted on my Facebook that she was “one of the Emmas” and she wrote: “I cried during and after the play, and felt that I wanted to stand up and shout out to everyone in the auditorium ‘Me Too!’ just to, finally, have the voice I’ve never had.” A friend texted me to say that she felt “like I was holding hands with every other woman in the room, because we could all relate on some level.” I knew what she meant. It was like a collective moment of grief, shock, and bone-deep sorrow, burning inside each of us as one.

No more. No more.

I cannot thank the team at Landmark Productions and the Everyman enough for the work that they have put into creating this extraordinary piece of theatre. Special thanks to Anne Clarke and Julie Kelleher, two of the most formidable women I have ever met. Meadbh McHugh adapted the book, beautifully, remaining faithful to its essential spirit, while heightening it for the stage. Annabelle Comyn, the director, has left me awestruck by her artistic vision and genius. Paul O’Mahony deserves all the awards for designing the deceptively simple, but powerful set.

And as for the cast.... All I can say is that the future of Irish theatre is very safe, if these actors are anything to go by. It’s a rather surreal experience, as an author, to see characters that you created being brought to life in this way, with such empathy and sensitivity, and in the case of the boys embroiled in the rape, with a nauseating attention to detail. Ultimately, much of the show rests on Emma’s shoulders, and Lauren Coe is Emma, in all of her narcissistic, manipulative, crushingly vulnerable glory. It’s a star-making turn from the young actress, a role that demonstrates the extent of her considerable talent, and yet all I wanted to do afterwards was to hug her and to tell her to take care of herself. I know what it’s like to live inside Emma’s head.

Tonight is the final night of Asking For It in the Everyman Theatre. It’s been so special to have the play debut in Cork, my home county, and to be able to attend the premiere with my family, my boyfriend, my best friend, and my eighty-five-year-old grandmother. (Gran’s verdict: “Well. it wasn’t like that in our day, I can assure you.”) If you missed out, the production travels to the Abbey Theatre in November, and I urge you now to beg, borrow, and steal in order to get your hands on a ticket. It is the most important piece of theatre I’ve seen in years. As my father said the following day: “This play makes you question everything. What would you do if it was your daughter? Or if your son was one of the boys accused? What would you do if it happened in your community? What kind of person are you, underneath it all?” And isn’t that what art is supposed to do? Shouldn’t it encourage us to think about the world around us, and the space we occupy in it? Shouldn’t art make us question who we are and what makes us human?

- Asking For It will play at the Abbey Theatre from November 9-24. See abbeytheatre.ie for more details.

LOUISE SAYS

READ: Promising Young Women by Caroline O’ Donoghue. Caroline is one of my favourite writers with The Pool website (and a fellow Cork woman to boot!) and her debut novel is an absolute treat. 

WATCH: Dublin Oldschool is opening nationwide on June 29 and the early reviews are pointing to this being a smash hit.

- Louise O’ Neill is the author of Only Ever Yours, Asking For It, Almost Love, and The Surface Breaks.



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