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Breaking the silence

Ronan Dempsey spoke to David Hennessy about his acclaimed play on the subject of domestic violence against men, The Words Are There, just before he brings it to London for the first time.

Ronan Dempsey’s one man show The Words Are There deals with a subject that is often not spoken about.

Concerned when a male friend of his revealed just what he had been subjected to for many years, Ronan was moved to write a piece about domestic violence against men.

The Words Are There has been acclaimed around Ireland, in Athens and Paris and has received many five star reviews, as well as being nominated for a prestigious award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it was a critically acclaimed Top 5 show at the Edinburgh Fringe.

The List said it was ‘…a visual feast as well as an emotionally complex and politically relevant thriller’.

The Wee Review added it was ‘A powerful and poignant play about a topic less talked about…Genius…Phenomenal…A fine sample of Irish Theatre’.

The Words Are There comes to London for the first time when he brings it to Hope Theatre in Islington this month.

Ronan told The Irish World: “I suppose curiosity or concern were the two things.

“I had a chat with a male friend of mine one evening and he kind of revealed to me that he had been involved in severe domestic abuse in a previous relationship and the relationship had gone on for about eight years.

“I suppose us, as a group of friends, had absolutely no inkling whatsoever. I found that it was shocking and concerning as well as speaking to a mate and obviously, being there for a friend or whatever also I found it extraordinary, the silence. The way in which he just went about his everyday life considering what was going on when he got home. There were very, very severe things happening.

“I was shocked at what he told us and then I was fascinated as to how he was able to live his life in this particular silence.

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“I think it sat there for quite a while and between one thing and another myself and a director Bob Kelly just decided to explore it.

“This was in 2018.

“I went off and I wrote a first draft of the play itself, it involved two characters.

“I was very, very adamant that it wasn’t gonna go a typical route of a lot of duologue, and a lot of graphic violence.

“I was determined that there would be as much silence and solitude within the play as possible.

“I found it really interesting and there’s a particular method in Paris that we studied and it was called the theatre of objects and it’s basically I suppose, reinventing particular life for inanimate objects.

“I just thought this was a really, really good way to go about it, to basically reinvent everyday objects within this play in order to be able to tell this story.

“So I filled a black bag full of household things like feather dusters and vileda gloves and all sorts of crap and newspapers and everything.

“And basically I went into a rehearsal room and spilled them into the middle of the floor and just started to devise this play based on a very, very rough script.”

From St Margaret’s in Dublin, Ronan originally trained as an actor at The Gaiety School Of Acting in Dublin. He then went on to study theatre and stage design at the acclaimed Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris under Tutors Francois Lecoq, Paola Rizza, Jos Huben and Pascale Lecoq.

In 2017 Ronan founded Nth Degree Productions, a physical theatre company based in Dublin.

The way I understand the play there is another character although you are the only person onstage, would you describe it as a one man show?

“It’s most definitely a one man show with a second character that very much comes alive, which is the partner of this particular character, Mick.

“He attempts to rewrite the past.

“In solitude he attempts to rewrite the past by recreating Trish, his ex-partner and on a loop, he goes over their entire relationship from beginning to end, in an effort to, I suppose to deceive himself or rewrite the past.

“So he’s caught in a vicious cycle of denial, of silence.

“No matter how hard you try and rewrite the past, it almost becomes even more real.

“So from the objects in the room, David, he assembles a puppet and he essentially builds Trish out of all these objects and she becomes a puppet, in which all these scenarios from their existence together is relived in the show.

“So it’s a one man but it’s a two hander in a lot of ways as well.

“One of the reviewers back in the early days wrote, ‘There are many times when Trish upstages Mick, and indeed the actor within the show’, so she’s incredibly prominent within it.”

I also read that having an inanimate object playing Trish gives the audience a blank canvas to imagine any characteristics or look they think Trish has..

“In curiosity, I have asked audiences after. I’ve said to them, ‘What do you think she looks like?’

“And people did find a lot of fun in that, or a lot of curiosity in terms of, they created for themselves.

“That’s essentially it, it’s a slow build.

“And I think as you make your way through their relationship, something gets added to this puppet and it basically sparks a memory.

“You get a scenario where you get voiceovers, and you get a lot of puppetry, and a lot of mime in order to tell the story.

“On stage in 65 minutes, I only speak three words.

“It’s extreme physical theatre, you know?”

Having such little dialogue puts the onus purely on performance, doesn’t it?

“I had never done a one man show before. Before I wrote this, I did a lot of ensemble work and stuff like that.

“I was quite shocked as a performer what happens to you when you’re on a stage on your own. It’s extraordinary.

“And what you’re saying is, it’s on the money.

“Because when you have a text, or when you have a typical one man show, which is direct address or whatever, there’s a certain security in the language.

“As actors, you can do a certain amount of hiding because you’ve learned a lot of things off and the text will save you in a lot of ways.

“But strangely enough, when you’re talking about the solitude, and when you’re talking about an extremely physical performance, there is just no hiding.

“You’re the centre of attention constantly and the show is very, very subtle as well so every single move that I make or every single thing that I do is communicating something and it’s got to be so precise and so accurate.

“But it most definitely really increases the pressure on the performer.

“I mean, it’s awesome as well. It’s absolutely fantastic.”

Ronan first performed an experimental and shorter version of The Words are There at Smock Alley before the late Karl Shields and Laura Honan invited him to develop it for Theatre Upstairs in Dublin.

“We did a two week run in Dublin and it was extraordinary.

“It was really extraordinary.

“I suppose the show just kept revealing itself.

“And then we got a lot of interest from the venues which then turned into a national tour, which then the play evolved again into the present version, which is the version that went to Edinburgh in 2019.

“And we were brand new to Edinburgh, we were really up against the guts of 3,000 shows.

“It was our first Edinburgh and it was a completely untested play over there, but the show was reviewed by The List UK on a second preview.

“Between one thing and another, the review got lost.

“The venue had told us there was a very, very good review for this and I ended up emailing the editor of The List.

“It’s probably a no no but we were wondering where to find that review.

“Anyway, this lovely lady came back. She says, ‘Oh my god, I’m so sorry. It’s on my desk here, it was buried. I’m gonna get it out immediately’.

“And she said, ‘There’s a top five listing on this review as well’.

“Everything literally changed overnight, like the audience figures. Our entire fortunes changed based on one review and one really strong top five listing.

“It delivered the rest of the run for us in Edinburgh, the nomination for the Bobby.

“It was kind of a game of two halves, the pure slog of Edinburgh and playing for two people in the audience in comparison to a sellout, you know?

“It was insane.”

In terms of opening a conversation about something that isn’t talked about, what has been the reaction from the audience?

“It’s incredible because it’s the first time that I’ve ever been involved in a show where the show ends, you go into a blackout and the show is most obviously over, and there’s just total silence.

“There’s almost like a slow clap.

“And people have actually said, ‘I have no idea what to do when this play ends. I have no idea whether I should clap, cry, or simply just leave’.

“Which is quite something.

“We played around with how the show ends in a few different ways.

“We were saying to ourselves, ‘Jeez, maybe there’s a false ending or maybe they just don’t know that it’s fricking over’.

“But it’s the same reaction no matter what way we end it.

“When the show first premiered in Dublin, It obviously drew a particular type of crowd, obviously people that were affected or whatever.

“I remember I was leaving the theatre one night and it takes about 45 minutes to clean up.

“And as I was leaving, there was a gentleman outside.

“And as I left, he approached me and he said, ‘I’m not going to go into anything and I’m not going to expand on anything but I just wanted to say thank you so much for just putting this thing front and centre’.

“And he said, ‘I know you’re probably wrecked and I’ll leave it at that, I’ll be off’.

“And that was it. And he didn’t need to explain why he was there.

“I imagined that there was some reason that brought him there. That’s been, I think, the most lovely encounter I’ve had with this play in the four or five years. Incredible.

“In the R & D (research and development), I did approach a lot of associations because I think you have a responsibility, I don’t think you have a right to approach something like this or write about it if you’re going to be loose with it.

“But the stories that I was told, it’s back to the age old- and it’s actually a line in the play- ‘Just schtum with your feelings and just get on with it’.

“There’s no room for moaning or there’s no room for expressing yourself.

“Or, ‘You’re a man, how could you be a victim to this? It doesn’t make any sense’.

“And they’re the kinds of responses that are given, and that seems to be the attitude that I encountered quite a lot.

“Which obviously creates silence if that’s all a guy has heard. He’s gonna say to himself, ‘There’s no way I’m ringing the guards over this, there’s no way I’m gonna talk to my father or my mother about this’.

“But I think it’s getting better though.

“A lot of the groups in the UK that maybe would have been women’s groups have become men and women’s groups, support groups, which is amazing.”

What about your friend who you speaking with inspired the whole journey? Has he seen it and what has been his reaction?

“He saw it once, yeah.

“He was quite emotional.

“I did speak to him through the development.

“There’s absolutely no detail within his own circumstance that is in the play, a lot of it is invented.

“It was important for me that if he was to attend, that he wouldn’t have that discomfort.

“He was very, very struck by the accuracy and he said he actually liked the context that was given to why his partner was like that, I thought that was very important as well.

“I honestly don’t think anybody goes out of their way to make somebody’s life miserable or to physically abuse them, I think there’s a whole host of circumstances that bring somebody to that point where they feel the necessity or the impulse to treat somebody like that, so there’s a generous backstory for Trish which is a tragedy as well.

“I remember another response and it definitely was quite common.

“It just goes to show you the knock on effect of gaslighting, whether it be conscious or unconscious but people in these scenarios, women or men, they feel mad.

“And they feel like, ‘Well, I brought this on, there’s a certain thing I’m doing that’s making them do something’.

“Obviously the perpetrators as well manipulate situations and men and women have said to me, ‘I walked away from the show saying to myself, ‘Okay, I’m not mad’, which is extraordinary as well because there’s a bit of gaslighting in the play as well, something I think that’s quite unspoken about as well.

“It was really nice that someone could go to a play and obviously witness certain things or hear certain things that they can completely relate to and they can actually resolve themselves by saying, ‘I remember that happened to me and I honestly thought it was my fault, but as I see it happening on a stage here, I realise all too well what was actually going on’.

“Maybe it’s a bit of a mirror up to society as well, and I think that’s obviously the job of theatre.

“It is to highlight stories that aren’t being told.”

The Words are there runs 14- 25 November.

For more information and to book, click here.

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