- Political Acts: Women in Northern Irish Theatre, 1921–2012 by Fiona Coleman
Scholars have recently begun to publish an increasing number of monographs and edited collections dealing with, at least in part, female playwrights and theatre-makers in Northern Ireland, including Women in Irish Drama: A Century of Authorship and Representation, edited by Melissa Sihra (2007); Brenda Liddy’s The Drama of War in the Theatre of Anne Devlin, Marie Jones, and Christina Reid (2010); The Theatre of Marie [End Page 573] Jones: Telling Stories from the Ground up, edited by Eugene McNulty and Tom Maguire (2015); and a few others. While drawing on their insights, Fiona Coleman Coffey’s study is exceptional in that it offers a broadly sweeping, yet also focused exploration of theatre by women in the North, as well as brings new ideas into the discourse of the field. In her introduction, the author explains why she does not address the already amply scrutinized works of major writers like Devlin, Jones, Reid, and Jennifer Johnston, but instead investigates unpublished works and less-known achievements. Following a chronological logic, she has divided the book into eight chapters which are grouped into three main parts: “Theatre, Gender, and Politics, 1921–1979”; “Troubles and the Stage, 1980–1997”; and “The Post-Agreement North, 1998–2012.” A conclusion, tellingly subtitled “Making Strides,” summarizes the movement from the past to the future.
On the whole, the argument of the study is grounded in and supported by substantial research, and the author provides detailed information about the sociohistorical and cultural contexts in which female theatre-makers, playwrights, and companies worked and to which they responded. Particularly informative is the discussion of the obstructed and belated development of second-wave feminism in the North, titled “Nation, Conflict, and the Politics of Feminism” (chapter 1). Here, Coleman Coffey notes that “[f]or women to join forces was not only to ignore essentialist identity politics but also to suggest that the two communities potentially shared interests more pressing than the opposing goals of the nationalist and unionist factions” (27). As the book highlights throughout, it has always been in the domain of culture, often in the art of theatre, that dedicated Northern women, beginning with Alice Milligan, Patricia O’Connor, and Mary O’Malley in the pre-Troubles decades, carved themselves some space to address the realities of their time.
Particularly welcome is Coleman Coffey’s strategy of discussing individual productions along with their reception. In part 2, the chapters (4–5) dealing with the Charabanc Theatre Company, DubbelJoint, and the JustUs Community Theatre Company reveal the chances of overcoming sectarianism in theatrical events as an underlying narrative. While Charabanc, founded by Catholic and Protestant actresses in 1984, managed to remain cross-communal and relatively nonsectarian, the other companies, which started later, embraced a different approach. JustUs’s production of Binlids (1997, a play set in the early 1970s) demonstrates the impossibility of achieving a nonsectarian stance during the peace-process years. Binlids displays the wrongs that the Catholic community suffered in the past, its coauthors being convinced that these should be exposed before moving on to social reconstruction. Also, Coleman Coffey comments on the controversial critical treatment of the play and gives reasons why “promoting the nationalist story” (135) was a must for the company, which, like DubbelJoint, aimed “to recover the repressed history of the conflict in order to confront it” (144), even jeopardizing Arts Council support.
In part 3, the book turns to post-Troubles drama, which the author finds imbued with cultural and individual trauma, the symptoms of which keep lingering on, especially among members of the lower social strata. Coleman Coffey addresses Abbie Spallen’s work in order to explore the identity problems of characters living in the borderlands and the rural North, while Stacey Gregg’s and Rosemary Jenkinson’s plays are discussed as portrayals of troubled Protestant loyalties in urban environments. With its experimental, anti-illusionistic form and its subject of building new walls, Gregg’s Shibboleath (2009) stands...