Irish and East European women ‘have much to learn from each other’
Waterford playwright Sue Healy’s radio play about an Irish-Hungarian culture clash gets a stage performance in London
A mysterious woman from Eastern Europe turns up in Kilkenny looking for work as a mushroom-picker. It is a teaser intriguing enough to turn anyone’s head – the glamour of a beautiful Hungarian, the inevitable confusion she experiences upon arriving in a hurling-mad parish and the joyful simplicity of her chosen occupation.
At least playwright Sue Healy certainly hopes so, as she brings her short comedy ‘COW’ to North London.
Originally written for Kilkenny and Carlow radio station KCLR, it deals with how women are viewed both in and out of Ireland.
“That’s the crux of it – an investigation of the different perceptions of women from the perspective of women themselves,” Sue says. “The two female characters go on a personal journey of self-discovery and it does end on an uplifting note.
“We also look at how rural Ireland has changed but, in this instance, it’s in terms of immigration into the countryside from Eastern Europe.”
These might sound like fairly serious issues – gender, immigration and a changing landscape – but Sue is keen to stress that it has a lighter side. This is most obviously seen through the interactions of Ági with her new community and the family she is working for.
This Hungarian Woman
“There’s a comedy of culture clash. This Hungarian woman is very bewildered by Irish culture. For example, Marie [Cleary], the wife, is a camogie coach who is absolutely hurling mad and is devoted to DJ Carey.
“Then there’re things as simple as boiling a kettle. Hungarians don’t use a kettle to make tea so she’s confused when she’s handed one in the house.”
A consistent comedic undertone is lined with more weighty themes, however. For example, the Clearys are struggling to conceive – a problem which is only exacerbated by Ági’s arrival.
And the newest member of the Glenmore community faces her own struggles as a woman who is used to a very different way of life. This point is particularly relevant to Sue, as someone who has lived in both Ireland and Hungary. While teaching English abroad she realised that gender roles and the attitudes towards women were different to what she had seen in her native Waterford.
“Hungary is quite a patriarchal society and women are expected to look at their ‘Kim Kardashian-best’ no matter what they’re doing, whether that’s picking mushrooms or anything else.
“In Ireland it looks as if she’s tarting herself up because she wants something, whereas in Hungary that’s just what you do; you look your best for your community.
“It was interesting for me as a woman to see the perceptions of women over there and to try and maintain an even-handed approach when writing this play.”
Sue explains how she wants people to come away from the play thinking about it – of their own perceptions of women, of Eastern European women, of Irish women and how Ireland has changed over the past 10-15 years.
But she adds that she likes to write comedies purely because they can provide greater entertainment to a wider audience.
“If you just wag your finger in a very stern way, you’re limiting things. If people find it funny and entertaining then there’s more of a chance of them listening to it and coming away from it thinking about it.
“I like to tackle serious issues but I also want to do it in a lighthearted manner. It helps you get your message across to a wider population.”
She believes this play will appeal to various groups, including the Irish in Britain who might have seen the changes in Ireland, and the UK, first hand. It will also be attractive to those with Waterford connections, as not only does the playwright hail from there but so too does actor Michael Quinlan and the family of director Catriona Clancy.
But most simply she feels as if it will be an opportunity for people to enjoy some light entertainment with the option to discuss things afterwards.
“You don’t even have to be particularly interested in theatre, it’s not avant-garde or anything like that. It’s very straightforward and hopefully will appeal to plenty of people out there.”
As for the title, well that is symbolic of the play as a whole. In the most obvious sense, there is a cow involved towards the end, while the setting is one where farm animals are likely to be an ever-present.
And if you dig a little deeper, you see that while it is engaging and light-hearted, there is a darker side to matters in Glenmore.
COW is showing for one performance at the Etcetera Theatre in Camden at 9.45pm on Easter Saturday, 15 April, as part of the Pub Theatre Festival.
• For tickets and more information, visit www.ticketea.co.uk