BRIAN FRIEL'S masterpiece, Dancing At Lughnasa, is one of the greatest and best loved Irish plays, and this month at the Town Hall, Blue Teapot presents a uniquely authentic production, featuring Jennifer Cox, an actor with an intellectual disability, as Rose; exactly as she was written and a milestone first for Irish theatre.
Set in County Donegal in 1936, during the harvest festival of Lughnasa, this powerful play takes you on a compelling journey of a family unravelling. The Mundy sisters’ lives are precariously balanced with Kate the only real breadwinner in the house. The return of their brother missionary priest Father Jack back from Uganda after 25 years is anticipated by the sisters with the hope of restoring their standing in the small community.
In this play, the dynamics of a family are both greatly enriched and made more vulnerable by the presence of a sibling with an intellectual disability. Casting Jennifer Cox as Rose will deepen audiences’ experience of an Irish theatre classic, and the production also features some of Galway’s finest actors, including Tara Breathnach, Diarmuid de Faoite, and Rod Goodall, as well as an original score has been composed by Brendan O’Regan. Rehearsals for this exciting production are ongoing at Blue Teapot’s base in Munster Avenue and, last Friday morning, I dropped by to chat with Jennifer Cox and director Petal Pilley about the show.
A confident, outgoing young woman, Jennifer is the youngest of a family of 13 (nine brothers and three sisters ) from the Claddagh. She has been with Blue Teapot for five years and I began by asking how has she enjoyed the experience. “It’s been fantastic” she declares emphatically. “It’s made me who I am now. I am getting into my career as much as I can. I was supposed to be going to an Ability West day centre in Liosbán but I didn’t go there, I picked my career here.
"Being in Blue Teapot showed me I could do more and it showed who I am and what I am meant to be in the world. My mam and dad used to say ‘What do you want to do with your life and your future?’ and I’d say ‘I want to be an actress just like Jennifer Aniston or Meryl Streep.' So I want to here in Blue Teapot to get into more plays and get out there and show people what I can do.”
Jennifer, who has Down Syndrome, played the part of Rita in the brilliant Blue Teapot film, Sanctuary, which was directed by Len Collin and won many awards and plaudits. I suggest her family must have been thrilled by her success in the film? “Yes, they were all very proud, she agrees. “They kept calling me Rita! They were proud of me because I did a lot for them and they did a lot for me. I’m very close to my mum Betty; we’re getting closer every day. Sadly my dad died some years ago but I know he is looking down on me now and would be very proud of what I am doing now as well.”
'Jennifer innately has the traits that are relatable to Rose. Like Rose she comes from a big, loving family. She is also a fiercely emotionally intelligent actor and she gives a lot to everybody else in the cast'
While Jennifer’s previous acting roles have all come as part of the Blue Teapot troupe, Lughnasa sees her sharing the stage with veteran professional actors. Was she at all nervous at the prospect? “I was a bit,” she smiles, “but then when I got into it I felt better. They are really strong actors. I don’t mind what part I have, I just love to do whatever they want me to do. Petal has showed me what I am really capable of doing.”
Jennifer offers her thoughts on the character of Rose: “She is vulnerable and she is more ‘out there’. She gets everyone into the dance and to enjoy life the same as her. She wants to get out in the world and get a chance to have a boyfriend but her sisters don’t like the boys going out with her that’s the bad side of her life. One thing I do like about it is when you’re acting to give a hug, you go for it. I give the actors a lot of hugs!”
Jennifer delivers this final remark with a warm laugh with which director Petal Pilley joins in, “You do!!” she says, addressing Jennifer. “When there’s a big emotional scene you’re great!”
Petal then describes how this production of Lughnasa came about: “A few years ago I began to think about the presence of people with disability in well known pieces of theatre. Where the characters had an intellectual disability they were usually played by non-disabled actors. As part of an Arts Bursary I got TileStyle in 2014 I began to explore possible plays we could do with a disabled character and I settled on Lughnasa. It is clear in the text that Rose has a level of intellectual disability. The dynamic of the family by having the presence of Jennifer as Rose is so much more hard-hittting and impactful. There is no denying the disability onstage, it’s a very real experience of it and I can see it with the actors and how they adjust.
“Jennifer innately has the traits that are relatable to Rose. Like Rose she comes from a big, loving family, and her mum was from Tyrone as well, which is Brian Friel country. She is also a fiercely emotionally intelligent actor and she gives a lot to everybody else in the cast.”
Prior to our interview, Petal showed me Sabine Dargent’s visually striking set design for the production. She describes it thus; “Sabine and I talked about the play and how Rose and her sister Agnes are described as knitters. She has come up with this amazing design where it’s as if the house is made of wool. There are all these floor to ceiling threads of wool which I adore and they are in those rusty, bog colours so it doesn’t look like the normal kitchen sink drama set. It’s a very elegant design and gives a lot of room for the audience’s imagination. We had a lovely bit of good fortune with it as well which was as we were looking for wool –and it can be hard to source 1.6 kilometres of wool - O’Maille’s kindly donated the entire lot and they were so knowledgeable as well about the wool people would have used in Donegal.
“For me, this production is all about integration and inclusion. So as I’m watching the rehearsal process Jenny is not being treated differently. Her uniqueness is part of the mix but what I am seeing is that a level playing field and that’s how the actors are responding, and that’s the story and that’s what I really wanted. And it’s predominantly Galway talent in the show as well and I am really proud of that too!”
Dancing At Lughnasa runs the Town Hall from Thursday May 24 to Saturday 26 at 8pm, with a preview performance at 12 noon on Thursday 24 and Saturday matinee at 3pm. Tickets aare via 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie