Director: Lynne Parker
Script and Lyrics: Arthur Riordan
Music: Bill Whelan
Music Director: Cathal Synnott
Reviewer: Liam Harrison
“A woman can be anything she wants to be” – the lie told to Irish schoolgirls throughout the 20th Century gets a thorough exploration in Rough Magic’s musical about the Belfast contraception train. You can be anything you want unless you want to marry and keep your job, be paid the same as a man, leave the country without your husband’s permission, or keep the church out of the bedroom.
In March 1971, a group of 47 women protested against the illegality of contraception in the Republic of Ireland, in a show of dissent against the deep-set misogyny perpetuated by the symbiosis of church and state. They took a train to Belfast, loaded up on their “forbidden fruit, contraband loot”, before making the provocative and symbolic trip back south.
The Train portrays a range of characters who embarked upon this voyage, from the proud and snappy journalist writing a ‘woman’s column’ to the Marxist who laces her speech with Kate Millett quotes. The show does not simply promote a one-size sexual revolution, but explores the rôle of hormonal contraception across the social spectrum. We encounter the housewife looking for the luxury of family planning as she worries about the economic strain of a third child, and the infirm mother being told she is too weak to have another child, yet her husband, church and state still have the authority to overrule medical advice, with potentially fatal consequences.
The songs possess a comic ingenuity, making salient points about social problems while hitting many hilarious notes. The Train’s more personal songs develop individual character traits while raising important issues. The repeated refrain of What Can We Do? sums up that indecision of how to act upon a feeling of dissent, a common feature of protest movements that often leads to in-fighting and fractures, which are present in the plot. Certain songs do lack some of the wit and sharpness of the more political numbers (although the personal and political are appropriately difficult to separate).
Alongside the narrative of the Women’s Liberation Movement, we witness a hilarious portrayal of domestic morality and repression in the family life of Adam (Emmet Kirwan) and Aoife (Clare Barrett), complete with interrupting priest and nuns. These two have the best comic moments of the performance, with some wonderful parodies of conforming male and female rôles in the home.
The language used in The Train has a theatrical self-consciousness, reflecting on its own form within the context of female rôles in society and theatre. There are rallying cries about “ripping up the script” of tired feminine clichés, and “playing a different rôle”. Such lyrics comment on how female parts are frequently written by men, laden with certain preconceptions and token characters – ‘the fiery one’ or ‘the mother’ – which The Train both indulges in yet simultaneously critiques (it too is written by a man).
The Train’s self-reflexive approach raises broader questions about women’s rôles in Irish theatre as a whole. There have been many in-roads in shifting Irish drama away from a centrally masculine gaze. Tom Murphy’s Bailegangaire and the late Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa are the two most critically renowned Irish plays which explore the marginalisation of women in society (both have successively topped the bill at the Dublin Theatre Festival in the last two years). Yet both are noticeably written by men, which does not necessarily negate each playwright’s nuanced understanding of feminist issues (particularly in Bailegangaire’s Mommo). However, there still remains a problematic dearth of Irish female representation written by women, who have gained the critical and popular scope of Friel and Murphy.
There are obvious comparisons between the need to travel to Belfast for contraception and the contemporary custom to travel to England for a legal abortion. Although the analogy is not perfect, these secular, parallel pilgrimages do reiterate a central point – “The church and state believe a woman’s body is just a pawn in their game”. The Catholic (and Paisleyite Protestant) Church does get a thorough kicking in The Train, and the show does see a few audience walk-outs from those who uphold a firm reverence for the church’s unique social and political status.
With so much dazzlingly-performed politics, it can be easy to forget the musicians in the shadows who play Bill Whelan’s score wonderfully throughout the show. They lurk at the rear of a striking set, which consists of a great scaffold resembling both an urban railway bridge and the passages of a church, jutting out in a V-shape. The reflection of light through a stained-glass window is occasionally projected onto the scaffold, delicately raising the biblical imagery which is recurrent throughout.
We are told the tale takes place in the “epic present tense”, weaving a new mythology of liberating heroines with a classical dramatic form. Mary Robinson’s social crusade into human rights is brought into this epic narrative, although her tale is told by the priest, and she is attributed demonic qualities, which adds to a general Miltonic trope about these ‘fallen’ women. Each woman of the liberation movement is attributed their own corresponding demon, ultimately begging the question – with devils like these, who needs angels?
Runs until 11October 2015 as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival | Image: contributed