Theatre Review: The Unmanageable Sisters at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin

The Unmanageable Sisters

Written by Michel Tremblay (Les Belles-Soeurs)
Adapted by Deirdre Kinahan
Director: Graham McLaren


Cast: Karen Ardiff, Clare Barrett, Charlotte Bradley, Noelle Brown, Catherine Byrne, Rachael Dowling, Tina Kellegher, Lisa Lambe, Sarah Madigan, Clare Monnelly, Mary O’Driscoll, Marion O’Dwyer, Rynagh O’Grady, Caoimhe O’Malley, Catherine Walsh

The Abbey Theatre, Dublin
31 March 2018

You might already have noticed, but we're in the middle of something of a revolution at the moment. It's looking like #MeToo is going to be something more than just a trending social media phenomenon, and as more revelations of past and present misconducts make the news it's creating pressure for real change for women in the workplace to be treated with greater equality and respect. Changes at home however are proving slower to evolve, a gradual incremental generational shift rather than an overnight conversion, and to judge from Deirdre Kinahan's The Unmanageable Sisters (or back further to Teresa Deevy's Katie Roche performed also in the Abbey Theatre recently) - it's already been a long, long process for women in Ireland.

And Canada too, it seems, since The Unmanageable Sisters is an adaptation of the Québécois writer Michel Tremblay's Les Belles-Soeurs. Re-written for a Dublin setting in the mid-seventies however, it seems to brilliantly sum up a period when there was a clear generational shift opening up between the youth of the post-permissive era (not that it ever had any real impact in Ireland) and the previous generation who would have been living under the controlling and repressive influence of Irish Catholic conservatism. As events play out that mark the change and conflict in attitudes and behaviour, it soon becomes clear however that there is still a long way to go.



There's something nostalgic and sad then in the situation in the working class Dublin district of Ballymun, where housewife Ger Lawless has just won a prize of a million Green Shield stamps, enough to get just about every item in their catalogue of the most modern kitchen and home appliances. She needs to stick one million individual stamps into the books however, but sure she's got her sisters, friends and neighbours who are only too willing to come around and help (and help themselves). With a few cups of tea to keep mouths from drying out, they can pass the time having a good old gossip about the shocking behaviour of other neighbours, with much tut-tutting about the scandalous behaviour of these younger ones, particularly Ger's teenage daughter Linda, who looks like she could go the way of Patsy Guerin, and the less said about Patsy Guerin the better.

Some of the attitudes and outbursts might sound ridiculous and exaggerated for effect, the women scandalised by dancing, which the priest says is a sin, the idea that any woman seen anywhere in the vicinity of a nightclub is nothing more than a common slut, and that too much education for a woman is a dangerous thing; start reading books and who knows where it might lead! You can be fairly sure however that such sentiments were common and I suspect that while some women of a certain generation might secretly harbour and delight in the stirrings of independence for women, many probably still remain too much in the thrall of the Catholic church and its teachings, too wedded to their responsibilities to home, husband and children to permit themselves to indulge in any such fanciful notions.

There's a balance to be found in the tragedy of this realisation and the comedy that is to be found in the individual conflict that each of the women struggle with between their "duties" and the need for personal expression that has been stifled since birth. What emerges from the The Unmanageable Sisters is an unquenchable spiritedness and its primary expression is to be found in the richness of the character detail and in the opportunities the play gives individual performers and a large ensemble. Repressed but irrepressible, each of the women get their own opportunity to step outside the binding reality of their lives and confess innermost desires and frustrations that they would never otherwise voice.



Set against this, the teenage Linda Lawless and her friends can see the need to escape this world and strike out against it in the only way they can, but soon find that - in the 70s at least - society still comes down hard on any woman who steps out of line or questions the authority of the Church. The framework isn't yet there either for them to lead independent lives, to get a job, earn a living, even find the money to get on the boat and escape to England. There are other reasons why a woman might want to take the boat to England, and that of course is for an abortion, a situation that inevitably comes up here. The fact that abortion is still illegal in Ireland just shows how slow things have been to change, and that there's a way to go yet ...but we're getting there gradually.

In the contemporary theatre and arts world of Dublin at least, the presence of women is clearly evident and the prospects much more promising. Teresa Deevy's 1936 play Katie Roche, directed by Caroline Byrne, played at the Abbey last year and was a reminder then of just how long women have struggled to have a say in the direction of their own lives. Most recently Annabelle Comyn demolished that patriarchal emblem of the theatrical establishment Look Back in Anger at the Gate Theatre, and Belinda McKeon's Nora at the Project Arts managed to look back on the position of women in the past as a reworking of Ibsen's A Doll's House and at the same time consider with some concern what kind of traps women might inadvertently be laying for themselves in the future. The Unmanageable Sisters likewise reminds us how far we have come, but that we still have a long way to go.

And, since I haven't really mentioned it and may have been taking it all too seriously, I should mention that The Unmanageable Sisters is uproariously funny. Graham McLaren's direction takes a while to build momentum in a play that has limited dramatic action, relying rather on nostalgic references, insightful observations, recognisable characters and the great comic interaction between them that gradually draws the audience into the Green Shield stamp-sticking party. Colin Richmond's terrific set design of a run-down Ballymun tower block flat has its own recognisable period detail that tells its own story, just as the clothes the costume designer has come up with tell you much about the character of each of the women. It's heartening to see that this production of The Unmanageable Sisters has been bringing many to the theatre for the first time and, if the matinee performance I attended anything to go by, delighting packed audiences at The Abbey.

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