Irish writer Fiona Doyle speaks to Adam Shaw about her new play set to debut at The Bunker
The death of a loved one can be an overwhelming experience and it will often have a lasting effect. There can be feelings of pain and sorrow as well as appreciation, recognition and, perhaps, relief. At the same time, death emphasises our own mortality and provides us with a bit of perspective towards life.
This concept is what pushed Fiona Doyle towards writing plays after her father passed away four years ago.
Having obtained a degree in Drama and Theatre Arts from the University of London, she was no stranger to the stage but, by her own admission, she was “sleepwalking” in her career. This changed with her father’s passing – losing someone so close brought home a harsh reality and introduced her to the world of writing.
“His death had a profound effect on me,” she said. “It shocked me into understanding how limited our time is and forced me to reassess my life and what I wanted from it.
“I became fearless and liberated in a strange way. I suddenly stopped worrying about the expectations of others and started listening to myself.”
This change in attitude has seen Fiona turn out a number of plays and has resulted in commissions for various organisations in London.
Her latest offering, Abigail, looks at how an unresolved trauma from the past can impact on a person’s present and future. Set in Berlin, among other places, it takes place across a fractured timeline and is described as “raw and honest”.
Fiona hopes people will engage with the play and be able to take something away from it, though, as with all her work, she appreciates that she cannot define exactly what this is.
“Everyone interprets stories in their own unique way. I can’t control what an audience member takes away with them after a performance of one of my plays.
“My job is simply to tell that story the best way I can. I think it would be disastrous for me to start a play with a theme or concept as the priority,” she explained. “Whatever conclusions people draw after a performance is up to them. If my objective as a playwright was to get people discussing certain themes then I’d be better off going into politics or activism or something like that.”
To achieve the idea of telling a story as well as possible, she tries to start small and let things grow from there. She also views the relationship between the playwright and the characters as “a delicate dance”; stressing that it is important for her to establish when to lead and when to be led.
“The most Important thing is to feel connected to the story I’m trying to tell”
And one thing she tries to avoid is letting certain expectations – including her position as an Irishwoman – dictate what she is going to produce.
“It bugs me when people assume that because you’re Irish then all your characters need to be Irish too and there has to be some special kind of ‘Irishness’ about your play,” she explained.
She has written two plays set in Ireland – Coolatually and Deluge – but this is more of a coincidence rather than a result of pressure to write about her homeland.
“It’s not in my DNA to keep writing the same kind of play over and over again; it does nothing to help me push my own boundaries as a writer,” she said. “The most important thing is to feel connected to the story I’m trying to tell and if that story happens to take me to Kerry or Berlin or Mozambique then so be it.”
This stance has led to Abigail, a play which “could be set in a number of countries and the characters played by actors of various ethnic and racial backgrounds”.
Fiona admits that she is always looking to improve but, in spite of this quest for improvement, she is also of the belief that, even if each play is viewed as some sort of upgrade, there is still more that can be done.
“Writing is at the centre of everything now. I’d just like to keep going and hope that one day I might manage to write something that doesn’t feel like it has somehow failed,” she said.
“To me, the work never seems to be good enough and you begin each play in the hope that it’ll be better than the last.
“But I suspect the magnum opus moment might never happen – and perhaps that’s a good thing.”
She might not have – in her eyes, at least – reached her apotheosis, but she has received plenty of accolades in her fledgling writing career. The Papatango Prize and the Phelim Donlon Playwright’s Bursary and Residency Award have been collected and she was granted a two week residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre last summer. Her work has resulted in commissions for ARLA, Hampstead Theatre and NT Connections and Coolatually is making its way across the Atlantic for a stint in Washington D.C. But for all this recognition, it is the simple pleasure of writing which brings her the most satisfaction. This is what will remain at the core of her immediate future, alongside a few Abigail-inspired German lessons.
“I wrote [it] back in early 2013 and had visited Berlin a few months prior to that,” she explained. I love the city. It’s a very atmospheric place and just struck some kind of chord in me. I’ve been learning German ever since.”
The joy she derives from travelling and learning another language are two examples of the freedom she has gained from focusing on writing. She is sleepwalking no more and moving along a much clearer path, heading in the right direction.
• Abigail runs at The Bunker Theatre, London, SE1 1RU from 10 January until 4 February (no Monday performances).
For more information or to book tickets, call 020 7234 0486 or visit www.bunkertheatre.com/whats-on/abigail