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Cutting the Mustard

Playwright and actress Eva O’Connor told David Hennessy about bringing her Fringe First- winning one woman show Mustard, a show about heartbreak, mental health and condiments, to London.

Playwright Eva O’Connor tends to write from her own personal experience and causes she is passionate about.

This week she brings her award- winning play Mustard to London’s Arcola Theatre.

It is the story of a woman struggling to cope with a bad break-up and how heartbreak can really be the straw that breaks the camel’s back when it comes to mental health.

Although it is a play about a woman who takes to smearing her body in mustard as a coping mechanism, which sounds strange and out there, mustard was something Eva reached for when she was struggling with an eating disorder.

Eva told The Irish World: “It’s not entirely autobiographical but it’s a one person show about heartbreak and madness and condiments, mainly the mustard condiment.

“It’s about a girl who is in quite a toxic relationship and when that breaks down, she kind of loses her marbles and she becomes addicted to putting mustard all over her body as a kind of really strange coping mechanism.

“The mustard part is inspired by when I was younger and I had an eating disorder.

“I used to eat a lot of mustard because it was very high in taste and flavour and low in calories which I found out after I recovered is actually very common to people with eating disorders so I’m not alone in that.

“I suppose I was really interested in the idea of when you have this kind of shameful thing you do behind closed doors, whether it’s alcoholism or whether you’re a drug addict or whatever it is- For me, it was my eating disorder, and then for the girl in this play it’s putting mustard all over her body.

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“So on paper, it sounds quite dark but it’s quite funny as well.

“Her mum’s an evangelical Christian from rural Ireland and it’s all about her kind of trying to navigate this posh English guy that she’s dating and the Irish experience in London.

“And then when her relationship ends, she has to go back home and kind of swallow her pride and move in with her mother.

“So there’s a lot of relatable Irish banter in there as well.”

Being addicted to putting mustard all over your body may sound outlandish but people relate to Eva’s story sometimes saying that booze or self harm is their ‘mustard’.

“People sometimes specifically want to know, ‘What does the mustard stand for?’

“And I’m not gonna give a definitive answer to that.

“But I think anyone who’s kind of had a destructive coping mechanism in their life will be like, ‘Oh yeah, I know that feeling’.”

Eva quite literally feels it more than anyone else though as putting so much mustard on herself tends to sting the eyes.

“It is quite painful to put on your body but we suffer for our art and I’m used to it at this point.

“I’ve a very good stage manager who cleans it off very efficiently after. She’s a pro at making sure that every theatre we leave is spotless at the end so you don’t get a bad reputation.

“Actually there was a mustard shortage in France this summer.

“People were sending me links being like, ‘Mustard’s on the way out, you shouldn’t be wasting it in your show’.

“Obviously mustard is used in wars, like mustard gas.

“It’s really interesting actually.

“I suppose for me it meant one thing but then I realised that actually it is a very distinct, I suppose sometimes very destructive substance.

“So I think it’s quite apt that it’s like that rather than ketchup or mayonnaise.”

Eva and everyone involved with the show will hope that London is not hit by a mustard shortage like the one there was in France.

“That would be terrible. That would be a disaster.

“When we were doing it in Australia, one of our producers was flying over and he was like, ‘Am I gonna get stopped in customs with this amount of mustard?’

“We were like, ‘Fingers crossed we won’t’.”

Eva and the team got out of Australia without finding themselves on a very interesting episode of Australia’s Border Control, and even came away with the Critic’s Circle Award for its recent run at this year’s Adelaide Fringe Festival.

“We won which was great.

“I suppose when you go somewhere that far away, you don’t know how it’s gonna be received.

“It’s really nice when you travel all the way across the world and your play still goes down well.

“That’s always a bit of a relief.

“It’s amazing to get to travel with what you do, that’s one of the real highlights of working in my industry: Getting to see the world as well as do your show.”

This award joins the Lustrum Award and Fringe First Eva won for the show at 2019’s Edinburgh Fringe.

“I suppose after we got the Fringe First in Edinburgh, we probably would have gone on a run straightaway but then COVID happened so we had that kind of pause in the middle.

“I’m really lucky because lots of shows kind of just died really after COVID just from a funding point of view and people’s lives changing.

“I was really lucky that we were able to get the momentum back and we actually ended up going back to Edinburgh and had a really good run there.”

Eva has since also taken the show around Ireland.

The Edinburgh Fringe is a festival close to Eva’s heart.

She has rarely missed a festival since 2010 when she performed her first solo show there as a student living there.

“You’re right, I don’t like missing Edinburgh.

“I’m actually doing a new show in Edinburgh this year in Summerhall and it’s called Chicken, a one person chicken show.

“It’s the story of a chicken’s life basically.

“Chickens are dismissed as these stupid creatures and they have these very short lives and are used just for their meat and eggs but actually the chicken that everyone’s gonna meet in Summerhall is going to be a very exceptional creature.

“I suppose we’re trying to show that every creature has the capacity to love.

“Actually if an audience falls wildly in love with a chicken then how are they going to feel about it the next time they do eat chicken?

“I think that’s what we’re going for, just shifting people’s perspective on animals in general.

“I play the chicken so anyone in Edinburgh please come along and see me in all my chicken glory.”

Eva’s experience of having an eating disorder may have inspired the use of mustard in her current play but she wrote specifically about that experience in the play Overshadowed which she first performed in 2015.

This would later be turned into an eight-episode drama based on BBC3.

“I often tend to make work, I suppose like lots of people, about things I’ve gone through.

“I suppose Mustard is inspired by it, but it doesn’t directly address eating disorders.

“I suppose that’s the interesting thing about making work over time, I suppose your approach to things change and you also get older.

“And in my case, I have recovered and I suppose everything you’ve gone through kind of feeds into your work and informs your work, but I suppose that kind of shifts over time.

“Mustard is probably my most offbeat out there show so far.

“But I think it really resonates with people.

“People get really on board with the whole mustard thing.”

BBC3’s Overshadowed saw Eva play a personification of anorexia, a technique used to demonstrate how the disorder is different from the individual.

“I’ve had really good reactions to Overshadowed from people who’d gone through eating disorders themselves.

“That was really so important to me.

“After it came out everyone was like, ‘Oh, how did you know that it would be sensitive and it wouldn’t trigger people?’

“I went through an eating disorder so when we were filming it on set they’d like call me ‘the eating disorder police’.

“Because people would be like, ‘Can we do this?’ I’m like, ‘No, you can’t’.

“Or someone would be like, ‘Can we put a number on the scales there?’

“And I’d be like, ‘No, we don’t need to show any numbers’.

“I suppose the sensitivity to the issue came very naturally to me.

“I feel like if you’re going to make work about something like that, you need to make sure that you’re going to do your audience- the audience that have gone through the thing- justice.”

Eva has also written about the issue of abortion rights in the play Maz and Bricks which was first performed in 2017.

O’Connor campaigned hard during the Repeal the Eighth campaign of 2018.

“It’s amazing,” Eva says of Ireland voting to repeal its prohibitive abortion laws.

“I think it’s worth saying that abortion access in Ireland is still far from perfect and I think people still have difficulty with the services.

“But it was huge, amazing.

“I suppose it was very much also inspired in many ways by the marriage equality referendum that went before it.

“I think, as a nation, we sort of knew how to go about it.

“And everyone just gave it everything they had.

“Thinking back, it was so exhausting and so heartfelt but very difficult for lots of people as well and I think it was only when it was over that it was the relief, everyone was able to pause and be like, ‘Wow, we really did put our hearts into that’.

“But it’s a great example of grassroots activism and people power and I think it’s really important to remember that as a nation, we’re capable of that kind of change.”

Eva connects this change with current issues such as housing or the cost of living crisis which she feels governments are apathetic to.

“I do think that it’s funny the things you feel that you just have to accept.

“If we can change a thing as monumental as Repeal then we should be able to just in general build a much better society.”

Eva has also tackled climate change in the play Afloat.

Set in a post-apocalyptic Dublin in which the city is under water, Afloat is about two friends, sole survivors as far as they know, wondering if they could have done anything to prevent the catastrophe.

“Hildegard (Ryan, director and co- writer) was doing loads of research and it was absolutely insane to actually look up all the facts of what is happening in terms of like the actual incremental warming of the planet  and the effects it will have.

“It felt simultaneously quite anxiety-enducing to be looking at all those figures but also very empowering to be making a play that opens a conversation about it.

“We built a climate arts festival around the play and it was a week in conjunction with the Lime Tree Theatre in Limerick.

“We did a whole programme of arts around the climate and we had music, spoken word, theatre and cinema and it was amazing to bring the community together and to realise so many people want to stop climate change in its tracks.

“I feel like anything to get the community together like that can be really uplifting when you feel like everything is hopeless.”

Can arts play a role in climate change? “Absolutely because I think people feel overwhelmed by all the statistics that are out there.

“But I think arts really affects people’s hearts as well as their minds and can help you look at something and can help you look at something differently, can give you fresh eyes on something.

“I think it’s actually really important.

“I mean people have come out saying they really enjoyed Afloat but they also sometimes feel a bit shook after it.

“I won’t give away any spoilers but it kind of brings home the power of big corporations and I think the festival as well, Future Limerick, it was so heartening. Just the community response was amazing so hopefully we’re getting funding to do it again next year.”

Originally from Ogonnelloe in Clare, Eva has now been living in London for nearly ten years.

After first studying in Edinburgh, Eva went to drama school at Rose Bruford College of Theatre.

“I moved straight to London to do that Masters and then I never left like what happens to a lot of people, I think.

“I mean it’s a great mix of loads of Irish people, also loads of international people and whenever I go away and come back, I’m always happy to be back in London.”

Eva was invited to do a reading at the Irish Embassy in February for their St Brigid’s celebrations. She also performed pieces for the London Irish Centre in the past.

“I really enjoyed it.

“I love doing work with London Irish Centre and the Irish Embassy, it feels like a really amazing community to be part of and it’s nice when you get commissioned to make new pieces as well because it sort of gives you an opportunity to explore a new idea creatively without necessarily having to write a whole play if that makes sense.

“I’m really proud that I can be part of the creative London Irish community which is actually really strong.

“It’s never something that I intended to come over and really embed myself in the community but it’s actually an amazing scene to be part of.”

This will be Mustard’s London premiere.

Eva has performed other shows in London but this is her longest run yet.

“It’s our first London run which is really exciting.

“It’s really exciting to have a three week run and to be doing it where all my friends are based especially when you’ve toured around so much, it’s really good to finally get to do it.

“And the Arcola’s a brilliant venue as well so it feels cool to get to do it there.

“I’ve performed lots of shows in London over the years but this is probably my longest London run for a show so it’s exciting.

“I’m hoping the Irish community and just also the theatre community in general will come out.”

The show will make you laugh, cry and never look at a jar of mustard the same way again.

Fishamble: The New Theatre Company in association with Sunday’s Child Theatre company bring Mustard is showing at Arcola Theatre from 17 May- 3 June.

For more information and to book, click here.


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