THE COMPLEX subject of anorexia is addressed in a powerful, award-winning play, Overshadowed, written by Eva O’Connor, which comes to the Town Hall Theatre for one night only.
O’Connor suffered from anorexia for several years and draws on that experience in Overshadowed. “Like a lot of people it was something that developed in my early teen years, I don’t really know what caused it,” she declares. “A lot of things can cause eating disorders; sufferers are often sensitive people who are overwhelmed by their environment and it is a coping mechanism that they develop.
"Anorexia totally defined my teenage years. It takes over your whole life and totally shapes how you see the world. I was lucky enough to get really good help and recover. I remember my therapist saying to me it will be something that I’d either want to shout about from the rooftops and help people or I’d just want to bury it and move on. I definitely buried it and moved on for a while.
"I’d say I was only fully recovered in the last two years; it is a hard thing to let go of. When I reached the point of full recovery I was making theatre and then I got an award to make a show about eating disorders and I thought ‘oh right, I am going to have to do it now’. It’s been the most incredible journey because anorexia is not often spoken about in the media or if it is it’s misrepresented. People don’t understand the mind of someone who is suffering and this play gives that insight.”
“A lot of people think it is a teenage whim,” O’Connor continues, describing common misconceptions about the condition. “People think sufferers succumb to it because it is somehow popular or cool or it’s a teenage girl’s way of getting attention, or that it’s a body thing of wanting to look like models on a billboard. It’s much deeper than that; it’s a way of getting a handle on your life when you feel things are out of control.
"It might start out as just calorie counting but it becomes more deeply ingrained, like a mental illness. It becomes the main focus of your life and the play is about that. It’s about getting into the mind of the sufferer and saying this isn’t just about her wanting to look like someone off America’s Next Top Model.”
In Overshadowed, anorexia is personified as the character Caol (her name means narrow in Irish ), played by O’Connor, who preys on the mind of central character, Imogene, and constantly undermines her self-esteem. Interestingly, Caol’s lines are in rhyming couplets.
“The play is a family drama about a mother, the sister, and then Imogene going through this really difficult thing,” O’Connor explains. “Caol is invisible to everyone except Imogene so I wanted her to be other-worldly, she is like a slimy, low to the ground, creature. I play her in a flesh covered bodysuit. It’s quite a physical role and I’ve a background in dance. She’s completely different to the other characters and the rhyming verse is another way of doing that.
“Imogene’s relationship with the other characters is very important as well. Everyone who sees the play can connect with one or other of the characters. There is the mother/daughter relationship which can be tense in any normal family, and Imogene’s mother is a single mother so she is under strain. Then there is her younger sister Tara who idolises Imogene, and it is really difficult for her when Imogene starts to shrink into herself and stops being vibrant like she used to be.
"There’s also Imogene’s relationship with this guy at school, Eamon, and that’s really interesting because he is an outcast at school, he causes problems and gets suspended. They develop an unlikely bond and even though they have completely different realities they find solace in each other.”
Overshadowed has had rave reviews and won the 2015 Fishamble Award for Best New Irish Writing. “Of all the plays we’ve done this is the one with the most powerful audience reaction,” O’Connor reveals. “I heard so many stories from people who came to the play, there were parents, anorexics, I met a woman who was bulimic for 20 years – she told me the play inspired her to write a letter to her mum. Hearing the stories can be a bit overwhelming but the response to the play has been so encouraging and if I can help anyone reach out and get help, for me that is the point of theatre.”
The play is presented by O’Connor’s own Sunday’s Child Theatre Company. “I founded the company in 2010 with Hildegarde Ryan while I was at university in Edinburgh," O’Connor tells me. “Since then we have done six productions and it’s grown into a full time professional company. Our plays have been published by Bloomsbury and we’ve toured across Ireland and the UK.
"I write the plays and perform in them and Hildegarde directs. I tend to write plays about issues that I think are swept under the carpet and that need airing. My last play, My Name is Saoirse, was about a girl from rural Ireland who travels to England for an abortion. Overshadowed is about eating disorders, which is something I had myself, so it was a subject I felt passionately about.”
Overshadowed is at the Town Hall on Monday October 3 at 8pm. Tickets are available through 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie