Eva O’Connor’s latest drama “My Name is Saoirse” is a one-woman show, and this, for Tychy, plunges it into automatic disreputability. There are many understandable reasons why artists take solo shows to the Fringe, ranging from lower costs to a greater personal control over the performance. For Tychy, however, there has never been a solo show which could not have made a better play. A successful solo show is rather like a one-legged man running a marathon: impressive to watch, glorious in its own way, but always, inevitably, second-rate. O’Connor’s stage plays have been, in the past, exhilarating and unpredictable, and it is worthwhile to rue what we have lost out on this year.
A pint half empty is nonetheless a pint half full and “My Name is Saoirse” is at times more potent than O’Connor’s earlier plays in larger measures (it is also exiled from the Fringe theatre circuit to the Scottish Storytelling Centre). It is disappointing to lose the old unique atmosphere, the confrontational drama and the startling way that they would all sometimes break into dance, but we have traded in these largely stylistic elements for a more intense, more absorbed storytelling.
O’Connor first performed at the Fringe in a one-woman show and she is naturally at home with this format because, whether consciously or through some derangement of the psyche, she usually resembles several different people, of radically different ages, all at once. One minute she looks and sounds mindlessly girlish, and then, without changing her appearance in any way, she is a gaunt hollow-eyed crone. She can play two exact opposites – the wilting-violet Saoirse and the monstrously overgrown Siobhan – and make them seem equally vivid. I know that I sound like somebody who is amazed by what acting is, but the constant throughout all of O’Connor’s performances is what can be only described as glamour. With her magnetism as a performer, she is literally a prima donna.
Saoirse has killed both her mother and her unborn child; the former died when giving birth to Saoirse whilst the latter was aborted in London (since terminations of healthy foetuses are criminalised in Ireland).”My Name is Saoirse” has been publicised as an interpretation of O’Connor’s own personal experiences, but there seems to be more substance to its observational writing than in the political appeal. Saoirse’s nostalgia is made of real gold and there is a magnificent authenticity to her world. As a child she ate sugar on buttered toast (yes, people really did this in the 1980s) and acquired a best friend who became a substitute-sister and first kiss. Saoirse’s forlornness at being the only female in her family and her helpless devotion to the more sexually mature Siobhan ring out with a superb power.
But this play has no hope of sidestepping the politics. There is ostensibly a tactic here to “humanise” Ireland’s bitter debate over abortion by stripping away all of its shrillness, its dreary mantras and its infuriating immovability. It might seem that O’Connor is trying to build a bridge over the moral swamp, in which practicalities provide the safest stepping-stones. Saoirse simply accepts all the moral apparatus of the Catholic Church and she never openly questions it. She also never acknowledges the humanity of her unborn baby. It is not that Saoirse weighs up “pro-life” arguments and discounts them, but that they are never allowed to darken the stage in the first place. Her conduct may be morally unimpeachable, but there is no test or challenge for it to emerge from.
The mother who died in childbirth represents an awful Catch-22, against which everyday morality is of no use. The mother would have lived if she had aborted Saoirse and, rather nobly, Saoirse puts herself on the side of the abortionist. This nonetheless accords Saoirse’s aversion to pregnancy the status of a phobia, rather than of a moral tenet. Yet this play does not make any claims to neutrality or to be an overview of Ireland’s abortion debate. It submits a personal testimony rather than analysis and, in this, O’Connor displays her usual effectiveness.