By Jack Holland
The lives of the women of Belfast have for the most part eluded the dramatist. In the plethora of material about the city, fiction and nonfiction, produced over the last 30 years, one could count on the fingers of one hand those dramas that have made women’s experience central to their story. It would be naïve to suggest that this is because the lives of Belfast women are somehow not dramatic. Any woman who took her child out of the house in a working-class Catholic ghetto during the worst years of the Troubles, and saw the last man of a passing British patrol point his rifle directly at it, would beg to differ.
It is to the immense credit of "Bold Girls." the play about Belfast Catholic women now showing at Urban Stages in Manhattan, that it does not exploit the violence to achieve any cheap dramatic effects, nor does it preach about the rights and wrongs, the politics of the matter. For the four women characters whose lives the play depicts the Troubles are for the most part just a backdrop to their everyday lives. It is one that can at times thrust itself into the foreground in the most brutal manner, but their daily routine is such that an explosion or the crack of a rifle is matter for a only moment’s pause as they make a sandwich or sip a cup of tea.
Nora, her daughter Cassie, their friend and neighbor Marie, the ghost-like waif Deirdre who appears suddenly in their lives, all live in the Catholic housing estate of Andersonstown, West Belfast. Though apparently the period is circa 1990, it is not clearly fixed — it could be just about anytime from, say, 1971 to 1994. Or maybe (with a few appropriate changes) 1919-22. Likewise, the events going on around them — a bomb going off somewhere, shots fired in the distance, the sudden presence of a British army checkpoint down the road, black smoke billowing over the city from some fire or explosion somewhere, all remain indeterminate manifestations of a conflict that has become as much a part of their routine as the housework
What is definite, however, and sharply focused, is the women’s personal conflicts. Tha,t for a change, is center stage.
Marie, played by Marian Griffin, has lost her husband, Michael, to the struggle. A Provo, he was shot dead in circumstances which are never made explicit. Though some children make cruel fun of her children by joking about their father’s head being blown off, like so much else in "Bold Girls" his death hovers on the fringes of memory, always there, but never clearly seen. Nora, her friend, played by Denise Lute, has also lost her husband. Again, exactly how remains vague, except that we know he suffered from heart problems, beat his wife and got beaten up by his oldest son. Joe, the husband of Cassie, Nora’s daughter, played by Jordan Simmons, is locked up in the Kesh for a crime which he apparently did not commit. Cassie’s belief in his innocence is not based on any mad love she might have for him but indeed the opposite — she is convinced he is too stupid and incompetent to have done it (whatever it was). Meanwhile Deirdre, played by Sasha Eden, is an apparition in search of a father that she never knew and whose identity remains problematic. The entire play is an unfolding of the truth about these and other (secret) relationships that the characters have, and what the truth does to them and to their relationships with each other. And it is performed by three Americans and one Irish actress with remarkable power and zest.
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Fortunately, "Bold Girls" is far from another lugubrious lament about the Troubles, Belfast, men and their long-suffering women. It is anything but. Far from being gloomy, the play is a comedy, albeit a black comedy in the Ulster tradition, where irony, satire, mockery and send-up are deployed as means of preserving one’s sanity. There are moments of pathos. But even these are off-set by the never-ending presence of the mundane.
"Reports of disturbances in the west of the city? As if we hadn’t noticed,",says Nora, switching off the radio. "Can I borrow your hair dryer, Marie?"
"Pickle with cheese Marie?" Cassie aks in the middle of an emotional outburst in which Cassie imagines in gruesome detail cutting her husband’s throat or smothering him with a pillow as when he is in a drunken sleep.
Indeed, "Bold Girls" could be an illustration of what the poet W.H. Auden meant when he wrote, in "Les Beaux Arts":
"About suffering, they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window of just walking dully along."
Though no men are actually on the stage at any time during the play, their presence is always felt, especially that of Marie’s husband, Michael, the martyr for Mother Ireland. His handsome picture hangs on the wall, faintly glowing as if it were a picture of the Sacred Heart, until, toward the end, his distraught widow rends it apart, as revelations mount about his philandering ways.
The play, however, does not degenerate into a feminist rant against men. The characters’ relationships to men are portrayed as more complicated and conflicted than that. Yes, Cassie, Nora, Marie and Deirdre are angry are men, but there are other men in their lives whom they seek to defend because they love them. When Cassie denounces all men as "being the same," basically pigs, she exempts her father, whom she defends furiously against her mother Nora’s diatribes.
Apart from two scenes, the kitchen in Marie’s house is where the drama unfolds. Around the top wall, a coil of razor wire is depicted. The lesson of the play is visually underline by this. Their men go to jail for Ireland and the "cause," and serve their time, as republican ballad after republican ballad reminds us. But the women are as much prisoners as their men folk. The only difference is that the men’s incarceration is heroic and celebrated. Theirs is not.
"That’s the only story I’m fit to tell you, about nothing at all," Marie tells Deirdre, "except being brave and coping and never complaining and holding the home together. Is that the story you’re wanting?"
("Bold Girls," written by Rona Munro, directed by Haley Finn, is a production of Women’s Expressive Theatre. It plays at Urban Stages, 259 West 30th St., through April 21.)