Úna McKevitt conceived and directed the companion pieces Victor & Gord and 565+, which were performed together at the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray, Ireland, last weekend. Seeing the performances under the auspices of the Synge Summer School in County Wicklow, which is directed by the Irish theatre and performance scholar Patrick Lonergan, the evening raised a host of issues for our students and the other Synge School participants about what makes “theatre.” Both performances are devised works. McKevitt openly admits an interest in making theatre from everyday life. Her method is basically to interview friends and relatives and then ask them to perform their stories.
565+, the evening’s first piece, is a monologue by Marie O’Rourke, McKevitt’s cousin, a middle-aged, ordinary Irish woman with a story to tell. As the piece opens, Marie sat in the audience, happily ensconced in the front row, where she described why she loves to sit so close when she’s at the theatre. I was seated beside her that night, having just purposefully moved from the back of the house to the front for similar reasons, so I thoroughly enjoyed Marie’s explanation. After she confessed her obsessive love for the theatre, she mounted the stage to spin a loosely organized story about her life’s trajectory.
Marie got pregnant when she was rather young, and was surprised to find that her boyfriend, Tom, wanted to marry her. Although Tom and his family were delighted by their union, Marie’s family never approved. Marie reconstructs how she walked down the aisle at her wedding, wearing Janus-faced emotions depending on whether she was greeting Tom’s family or her own. Her family’s reaction proved prophetic.
Marie is never happy in the marriage, but conventional mores that insist women should perform happiness in domestic situations mean that she can’t tell anyone about her misery. She’s entrapped in a domestic space in which she’s lonely and bored, and she falls into a depression from which she can’t disentangle herself through any typical means. Although she describes various kinds of therapy—psychological and physical—she ultimately and unexpectedly finds solace at the theatre.
Marie becomes a compulsive theatre-goer, seeing everything she possibly can, because it’s only while hearing other people’s stories and watching other people’s bodies inhabiting them that she can both forget herself and better understand herself. She becomes something of a local hero—theatres hold the curtain for her if she’s running late, and local police don’t mind if she’s driving a bit above the speed limit to get to a performance on time. 565+ turns out to be the number of performances she’s seen . . . and counting.
Úna McKevitt performed with Marie the night we saw the performance, although it seems sometimes Marie is on stage alone and sometimes with a few more people. McKevitt sat mostly silent, watching Marie with a wry smile. The director seemed to efface her own presence for Marie’s, but seemed somehow active and important nonetheless. Wearing aqua jeans and sneakers, and sporting bright red hair, McKevitt sat on a trunk across from Marie for most of the performance, witnessing her story. She served as something of an on-stage prompter, marking the story and their place in it; sometimes, she seemed to offer Marie a cue to help her remember her lines, and other times, McKevitt herself seemed to forget the order of things.
At other moments, McKevitt seemed to serve as Marie’s conscience or companion. In a monologue about loneliness and its abatement, it might have been painful to watch Marie alone on stage. McKevitt’s presence lent her monologue a warm protection; that is, because the story addressed the vulnerabilities of a middle-aged woman with few options, Úna’s stolid, quiet presence projected the confidence that Marie would finally come out of her crisis into something else, something simply better.
At one point, it was clear Marie and Úna had lost their way through the story. They had a bit of a comical exchange about where they were, what they’d forgotten, and where they should pick up. Úna left the trunk on which she’d been sitting stage right, and moved to the worn red chaise on which Marie sits through most of the hour, saying, “I’m going to come over here with you.” Marie moved to make room for her and continued her story-telling as Úna continued her listening.
I found this simple moment moving and somehow true. Úna’s was a gesture of intimacy, of wanting to be closer, of lending physical as well as emotional support that seemed impulsive and right, rather than calculated or “representational.” In fact, in the discussion after both pieces, Úna admitted that she has something of an obsession for reality television shows. Her interest in how real lives are represented seeps into these two live performance pieces. Marie relates her story without much regard for chronology or even coherence, although it has the semblance of a beginning, middle, and end. Slides are projected behind her as if in a photo album, digitized snap-shots of Marie’s personal history: Marie in her wedding gown beside Tom in his tux; Marie and her children; and the occasional motto or phrase.
As the performance begins, the words “I find pain in the truth and truth in pain” are projected, handwritten in capital letters, as a kind of epigraph. Marie’s story is indeed painful—she lost a twin sister when they were born; her marriage was loveless; her life was mostly unmoored, solitary, and unpleasant. But it’s delivered with a light touch, with a sense of irony, and with the comfort of retrospection in which we know, as Marie’s presence on stage testifies, that everything turns out more or less all right. Marie has found—in a place of dissembling, unreality, and untruth; that is, at the theatre—a way to survive her own life.
Marie O’Rourke is not a professional actor. Our students were dismayed by the performance’s lack of virtuosity. They were appalled when Marie and Úna forgot their lines, and by their general lack of actorly command. That Marie told her story under the auspices of theatre—given the professional venue, the use of lighting instruments, the stage furniture and the theatre programs scattered around Marie’s chaise like props—seemed to heighten their expectations that what they saw would meet their standards for “proper” theatre. Instead, they were frustrated by what seemed Marie and Úna’s casual disregard for theatre conventions. And they fretted over their sense of the director and designers’ apathy about whether, for instance, the projections were visible and legible.
But the students’ very disgruntlement seems to me an indication of the performance’s success. McKevitt admits that hers is an anti-theatre project and that the last thing she aims to create is a well-made play. In fact, she said in the talk-back that the actors don’t work from written scripts for565+ or for Victor & Gord. The performers tell her their stories, and then rehearse them together, but they don’t fix a text.
At the Synge School, Irish theatre scholar Fintan Walsh said in a seminar he lead on queer performance in Ireland that McKevitt’s work should be read within the history of the nation’s theatre as intensely literary, not to mention only white, male, and of course straight. In this context, McKevitt’s rejection of a fixed text is a resistant choice. She dissents from a history of Irish theatre that refuses to narrate the likes of her and those whose stories she helps frame. By rejecting the literary, she asks us to pay attention to stories that historically don’t get written down. She’s committed to staging stories that haven’t been heard before in the public forum of the stage.
Victor & Gord, like 565+, came from McKevitt’s interest in a relationship she’d never seen detailed on stage before. Her sister, Áine McKevitt, and her childhood neighbor, Vickey Curtis, have been friends forever, maintaining a diffident, complicated relationship in which they both love and dislike one another in the manner of people who have and will know each other their entire lives. Áine relates that Úna saw a picture of her and Vickey that inspired her to ask the two to tell stories about their friendship, which in turn became the performance. Victor and Gord greet the audience:
VICTOR: Hi, how’s it going? I’m Victor, born Victoria Elizabeth Margaret Mary Jessica Curtis, and this here is Gord. . . . Gord is short for Gorgeous. I’ll let yiz make your own minds up about that one, though. Her real name is Áine McKevitt.
GORD: The reason we’re here tonight is because my sister, Úna, who christened us the names Victor and Gord, had seen a picture of us in my bedroom in our school uniforms when we’re about sixteen… and thought it would be interesting to explore further our friendship, which she describes as frustrated, constipated, and intense. (266, Queer Notions)
An early version of the play, which included two other performers (Ali and Michael) is now collected in Walsh’s edited book, Queer Notions: New Plays and Performances from Ireland (Cork University Press, 2010). But the published script is really just an archival trace, rather than the formal blueprint for subsequent performances. Úna originally directed the show in 2009 as a devised “durational work in progress” for Project Brand New 3 at Dublin’s Project Arts Centre. The show then went on to run at the Queer Notions Festival in Dublin and at Dublin’s Fringe Festival.
Like 565+, Victor & Gord is an affecting, happily formless story about three people whose lives usually don’t merit the kind of attention that the theatre provides. Áine and Vickey grew up as neighbors. Their comfort with one another is based on proximity rather than desire; that is, they’re related by place rather than by choice, although their long history makes them unable to sever their established bond. Áine wears a red hoodie that frames her curly blonde hair; Vickey wears a cap, and long shorts, and sneakers, and sports various piercings and buttons that read as “queer.” She relates stories of changing her name to suit her self-performance, and of lesbian conquests and consorts.
Because for whatever reason, Vickey and Áine have trouble looking one another in the eye, most of the performance is played frontally, with the two women speaking to the audience and only glancing at one another. But their wry observations and anecdotes about their adjacent lives detail a contiguous intimacy that means regardless of how far apart they stand, their lives are linked in a rhythm of history that extends into the future.
Neither is a professional performer, and like Marie and Úna, they sometimes forget their place in the story or laugh together at a mistake they make in the blocking. But the two women boast an easy stage charisma that no amount of actor training can provide. Victor and Gord talk about their lives in off-handed ways without giving one anecdote more power or emphasis than another. They reminisce about growing up together, sharing details of what they remember from one another’s homes. They talk about Free Love, when they and their friends “would get together for a night of drinking and snogging; the girls would kiss the girls, the boys would kiss the boys, but not too many boys kissed the boys.”
Gord says, “We actually only did Free Love once but talked about it so much it seemed like we did it every weekend.” Part of the fun of the performance, in fact, is measuring the relative import of an event against its reality; that is, framed as “theatre,” we expect to imbue everything we hear with a cumulative importance. Victor & Gord pulls that particular rug from under us. After the Free Love exchange, Victor admits, “And I actually wasn’t there; I was in Amsterdam making my own kind of Free Love.” This refusal of narrative power felt rather freeing to me. Instead of working to put together a coherent narrative arc, I was content to rest in the moment, enjoying each exchange for what it was, as the performers’ affect encouraged me to do, instead of working to write some broader importance into the story.
In this version of the piece, Vickey and Áine are joined by Jason Breen, who replaced Ali and Michael Barron, the sister and brother who appear in the published play. Jason is a solid, working-class man, who was abused by a hard-drinking father; cared for his mother until she died of cancer; had a younger brother he protected from abuse; and now has a cherished daughter of his own. Jason is trying not to drink his way into his father’s footsteps. He shares his stories with the same matter-of-fact bemusement as Victor and Gord, as if wondering who really cares about his experiences.
Jason wears blue jeans and white t-shirt, and delivers most of his lines facing front, rocking on his heels while a small smile plays over his lips. When he’s not performing, he watches the women and vice versa. Sometimes, their three stories overlap and they speak lines consecutively, looking out in the audience with patient, expectant, but not particularly urgent expressions. As non-actors, they focus lightly on the task at hand, and betray none of the vaunted “concentration” for which professionals strive so hard to achieve. The performers are simply there, with us in the moment of story-telling. They seem to enjoy one another’s presence and they’re large enough, on stage, to project out into the house in appealing ways. But they lack conventional actors’ more calculated desire to please, to be seen, or even to be acknowledged as somehow important.
I found this one of the most productively “queer” aspects of the evening. Only Victor is a lesbian; Áine remarks at one point that people think she’s “gay” because she’s in this performance, but she’s not. But Victor & Gord refuses to play to the audience or to fulfill our expectations of “good” theatre. It prevents spectators from easily seeing themselves reflected in the performance; although some of us might identify and empathize in all sorts of ways, that seems not to be McKevitt’s point. The piece also refuses to make the performance “about” the audience or, in fact, “about,” necessarily, anything at all.
At the same time, despite McKevitt’s rejection of the well-made play tradition, Victor & Gord does perform its connection to Irish theatre conventions. Although the script might not be written down, it’s been rehearsed and constructed in a way that does make poetry from the three performers’ lives. The rhythm of the lines; their overlap and repetition; the images they evoke; and even the general shape of the evening all do evoke the canon of Irish drama, even as Victor & Gord productively twists those conventions. (And as Stacy—FS2—and Fintan Walsh and Patrick Lonergan suggested, Jason Breen serves in this production as rather a Christie McMahon figure, a Playboy of the Western World in his own right, with his appealing swagger and his pub-style relating of the story of triumphing over his own personal demons.)
Still, I found the production’s resistance to generic convention an interesting queering of this tradition. We’re asked, over the course of this innovative performance, to witness, just as Úna does for Marie. We’re invited to listen to, perhaps to enjoy, and to observe people we might never otherwise look at, if we passed them on the street or in the market. McKevitt’s achievement with both of these pieces is to pull the ordinary out from the crowd, even if just for a moment, to celebrate the quirkiness and resilience and indeed importance of lives usually lived out of the spotlight.
The Feminist Spectator
Victor & Gord and 565+, conceived and directed by Úna McKevitt, Mermaid Arts Centre, County Wicklow, Bray, Ireland, July 2, 2011.