Playwright Deirdre Kinahan Awarded Inaugural Pratchett Prize

Writer: Louise Tallon

Irish playwright Deirdre Kinahan has today won the inaugural Pratchett Prize, along with the actor Bryan Murray, for their work on her play An Old Song, Half Forgotten. This major award “acknowledges the contribution of a scientist, artist, activist or person living with dementia who, collaboratively or individually, works to reduce its impact”. The prize honours best-selling UK author and humanist, Terry Pratchett, who passed away in March 2015, aged just 66, from complications of Alzheimer’s. Pratchett had campaigned vociferously to raise awareness of this debilitating and cruel disease.

When Murray phoned Kinahan to tell her he must drop out of a production of These Halcyon Days as he’d just been diagnosed with the condition, the actor mourned the fact that he’d never be in front of an audience again. Kinahan’s inimitable response was “who says you’ll never be in front of an audience again?”, and off she went to write An Old Song, Half Forgotten specifically for the much-loved thespian.

And so, on the Peacock stage at the Abbey Theatre in April 2023, in a monumental feat, Murray went on to portray James, an elderly actor and Alzheimer’s sufferer living in a care home, who takes a poignant walk down memory lane, all while battling the ailment himself. Kinahan’s script was a constantly changing, living, breathing thing to accommodate this unique set of circumstances. She pays tribute, in equal measure, to director Louise Lowe, supporting actor Matthew Malone and all the musicians and creatives for their part in helping to bring this very special project to fruition.

So who is this remarkable playwright? Deirdre Kinahan’s lifelong passion for theatre was forged at just eight years of age when she went to see a production of Maura Laverty’s play Tolka Row at the local pub in Ballinteer with her mother. The young girl decided there and then that she would be an actress and in no time at all was taking the bus into Harcourt Street to attend Betty Ann Norton’s School of Speech and Drama.

So invested was she in a scene from Tom Murphy’s play Conversations on a Homecoming just a few years later, that when Tom (Sean McGinley) tells Peggy (Marie Mullen) to go home as fast as her “fat little legs” could carry her, Deirdre shoots up out of her seat in the audience and shouts at McGinley; “You shut up!”

While her mother was fully supportive of her daughter’s theatrical ambitions, having a great love for theatre herself, she and Kinahan’s father wanted her to have a solid back-up plan. And so, in the early 90’s, when she was joining up with The Dublin Shakespeare Company (“The Shakes”) and The Matrix with Karl Shiels, after having travelled and “floated off in a plume of smoke with a whole lot of hippies”, it was with an English / History degree and HDip from UCD in her back pocket.

By 1997, despite having been fully immersed in Dublin’s drama scene for a number of years, Kinahan was frustrated by the lack of opportunities coming her way, in particular the lack of quality roles for women. Taking matters into her own hands she went about setting up Tall Tales Theatre Company with friend Maureen Collender. Their first foray into producing was with Peter Schaffer’s Lettice and Lovage at the Crypt in Dublin Castle which also provided roles for the pair. This would be the first of many successful productions for Tall Tales Theatre.

Bé Carna (women of the flesh) debuted at Andrews Lane in May 1999. The interlacing monologues of five prostitutes explore what it is, and what it takes, to work as ‘ladies of the night’ in 20th Century Dublin. Writing Bé Carna would affirm for Kinahan that this was her way forward and since then she has penned over 20 plays for venues at home, in the US, the UK and throughout Europe. Her works include the critically acclaimed Bogboy (Tall Tales Theatre Co), Moment (Tall Tales Theatre Co/Bush Theatre), These Halcyon Days (Tall Tales Theatre Co/Landmark Productions), Wild Notes (Solas Nua) and Spinning (Fishamble Theatre Co).

The word ‘prolific’ is often used to describe Kinahan’s work ethic and certainly she seems to always have a number of projects on the go. Just as An Old Song, Half Forgotten was winding down last May, The Saviour (Landmark Productions) was preparing for its autumnal Irish premiere at the Pavilion while at the same time Tempesta, a love story set during the Spanish civil war, would enjoy a sold out show in October at The Glass Mask Theatre on Dawson St.

Kinahan has recently returned from Mulranny where, armed with “a load of books from the lovely ladies in the library”, she shut herself away to begin research for a new play commissioned by the Staatstheater Mainz in Germany. Mayo has a special place in her heart as it is where she spent many happy times writing alongside fellow playwright Jo Egan, at the latter’s home on a lake near Clonbur. Egan was, very tragically, killed in a car accident in Co. Wicklow, on Christmas Eve, 2022. Her close friend’s death has left a large hole in Kinahan’s life as she “adored her”.

The writer will travel to Mainz for three weeks this March, as part of her residency there, to research the intriguing story of how 3,000 Palatines from the Lower German Palatinate came to settle in Ireland in 1709. Rathmines Road (Fishamble Theatre Co / Abbey Theatre) played in Bremerhaven in February, The Saviour is being translated into Italian, she has completed a screenplay adaptation of Outrage (Fishamble Theatre Co) for film and is also excited about a new comedic piece she’s working on for Fishamble, with roles for five women.

Added to all of the above, Kinahan is on the board of Glass Mask Theatre as well as Navan’s Solstice Arts Centre. Previously she has been a board member of the Abbey Theatre and Theatre Forum Ireland. The award-winning playwright is also a member of Aosdána, a government affiliation which honours artists who have made an outstanding contribution to the arts in Ireland. Grateful to people such as Pat Moylan, Bríd Dukes, and Jim Culleton, among many others, who have championed her in her own career, Kinahan now mentors up-and-coming creatives herself.

The writer is committed wholeheartedly to theatre and her work but this woman is more than the sum of just these parts. She is a vociferous advocate for women’s rights and equal opportunities for all, not just in terms of cultural politics but in all areas of life. Kinahan struggled against traditional patriarchal systems to succeed as a female playwright “in a man’s world”.

She is fiercely loyal – her tight-knit friends group have been with her since their school days. Relationships formed in the theatre and arts scene down the years, even as far back as her days at Betty Ann Norton’s School of Speech and Drama, endure and flourish. The down-to-earth playwright is warm, funny, and not in any way precious. While discussing her trip to Mayo, I ask if sequestering herself away is part of her process? “Not at all”, she says, “I can write anywhere, I could write in the hot press if I had to”.

When we speak of her breast cancer diagnosis which came like a “bolt from the blue” at the end of Dublin’s Theatre Festival in 2018, Deirdre doesn’t dwell on the blind terror that gripped her or the desperate worry for her children, instead she talks about the extraordinary support from family and the kindness of friends, neighbours and her local GP and pharmacist.

We touch gently on the devastating loss of her third daughter who was diagnosed with Patau’s syndrome (a fatal foetal abnormality incompatible with life) at 20 weeks gestation. There is an excellent, if harrowing and heartbreaking article, written by Deirdre for the Meath Chronicle (published 23/05/18) which tells Roisín’s story.

While the writer has always taken her inspiration from the experiences of people and goings-on in the world around her, you wonder if these battle scars can’t help but inform her work. In the Middle of the Fields written and performed by Kinahan for Solas Nua, in honour of Mary Lavin, can be found on Youtube. I recommend you look it up. It is a raw and beautiful piece of prose, drafted while recovering from cancer, and it is all the more powerful for its pared back honesty and authenticity. This woman is the personification of resilience.

Though both hail from Dublin, Kinahan and husband Gary, her “Baldoyle viking” (“he misses the sea”), have been living in their cottage in Wilkinstown, Meath, for over 20 years and are clearly devoted to each other. They will soon celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary to which they’ll raise a glass in Venice in the company of their daughters, Síofra and Sadhbh.

The playwright recalls how in 1999, right before their wedding, one of the actresses performing in Bé Carna fell ill so Kinahan had to travel to Edinburgh, perform the part herself, then rush back home just in time to catch her flight to Italy to get married. You can take this girl out of theatre but you’ll never take theatre out of this girl.

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The Reviews Hub - Ireland

The Ireland team is currently under the editorship of Laura Marriott. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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