'I’ve never done anything like this before'

Mary Coughlan talks about Woman Undone - a dramatisation of her early life

Mary Coughlan and Molly O'Mahony in Woman Undone. Photo:- Simone Rudolphi

Mary Coughlan and Molly O'Mahony in Woman Undone. Photo:- Simone Rudolphi

COMING TO the Black Box is Woman Undone, a profoundly moving, brave, and beautiful fusion of theatre, music and dance, which tells the early life of singer Mary Coughlan.

The show has been created by award-winning Irish theatre company Brokentalkers and Coughlan, in collaboration with renowned Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurdsson, and movement director Eddie Kaye.

Woman Undone explores the shocking story of a young girl who endured physical and sexual abuse, addiction, and mental illness. The production boasts an all-female cast including Mary Coughlan; dancer Erin O'Reilly; Ailbhe Dunne and Molly O’Mahoney from Dublin-based folk pop quartet Mongoose, and actors Ciara Ivie and Jade O’Connor, and features striking visuals with design by Sabine Dargent, lighting by Sarah Jane Shiels and projections by Jack Phelan.

Woman Undone combines biography and breath-taking theatricality with the extraordinary voice of Coughlan and Sigurdsson’s haunting score, to create a production both visceral and riveting. First staged in Dublin last year, it returns for a national tour. Ahead of its visit to her hometown, Mary spoke with me about the production.

“It all started a couple of years ago when I was doing a show where I was singing songs from my Scars On The Calendar album which I strung together with nine monologues and everyone loved it,” she begins. “Then I went to Brokentalkers’ The Circus Animals’ Desertion because my friend Martin McCann was in it. It was the most amazing blend of music, spoken word, and movement. Martin introduced me to Gary Keegan and Feidlim Canon of Brokentalkers afterward and out of my mouth popped the words ‘Would ye like to do a show with me?’

Erin O'Reilly and Mary Coughlan

"That was it, we started working together. They’d interview me and ask me questions and then tell me to go away and write about it for 30 minutes and I’d never done anything like this before. Working with Valgeir was also extraordinary; I usually just sing melodies but he had me doing mono note singing. I’d be singing in one note which was very difficult for me as I was listening to the other girls singing these beautiful harmonies and I was wanting to join in. My son Eoghan thought it was really cool though when he heard me do it!”

'I found music when I was 14 and it saved me even though I had a lot of anguish afterwards that took me to alcohol addiction and cocaine'

Reviews of Woman Undone praised its "startling and disarming imagery" (The Irish Times ); its "generous glimpse into the scarred psyche of a survivor" (Sunday Times ); while dancer Erin O’Reilly was called "mesmerising and vital throughout…Mary’s life has involved a lot of pain and hardship. Tonight this pain was turned into art. Emotional, moving and at times deeply sad, it took several minutes to get one’s breath back after the ending’ (thereviewshub.com ).

Mary Coughlan 1

O’Reilly represents the younger Mary throughout the show with the adult Coughlan as a reflective presence. “I had the idea in the first place to do it to just explain my life,” Mary tells me. “I had written the book Bloody Mary and then I wrote the monologues about growing up in Galway and running away from home and ending up in the nuthouse when I was 16, and there were a lot of issues with abuse that people didn’t know. Music saved me; I found music when I was 14 and it saved me even though I had a lot of anguish afterwards that took me to alcohol addiction and cocaine. The show ends when the little Mary and I are finally united as a whole being, up to then I was fragmented.”

'A home show is always difficult anyway. I remember selling out Leisureland when I had a No 1 album and I was so freaked out I felt I couldn’t do it. I’ve often felt like that but we do it anyway'

While the show required Mary to revisit painful experiences from her past, the fact that her story is one shared by many other women drove her on. “When I spoke about abuse first, a long time ago, I had hundreds of letters from girls who I went to school with and women who’d left Ireland because of abuse in the 1950s,” she relates.

Erin O'Reilly 2

“While working on Woman Undone I realised it might hurt a lot of people and one day I went into the guys and I said ‘I don’t want to do this anymore, I’m afraid of offending my family’ but then I heard news reports on the radio one morning about a family in Galway where somebody was abusing little girls and I thought ‘f**k it, this is still going on, I have to do this show’. The story is told in such a way that it is not exclusively about me. The subject matter is disturbing and we had to set up a help person in Dublin last year for people who were leaving the show in distress so it is not easy. However, it is done in such a way through movement and dance and music that it is very beautiful.”

How does Mary feel about bringing the show back to her homeplace? “I’m absolutely planking myself because Galway is where I grew up,” she admits with typical candour. “A home show is always difficult anyway. I remember selling out Leisureland when I had a No 1 album and I was so freaked out I felt I couldn’t do it. I’ve often felt like that but we do it anyway.

Mary Coughlan Erin O'Reilly 2

"Brokentalkers and myself are very close now, I worked with them every single day on the script. We’re a unit and we mind each other because it is a weird place to be going, a lot of the material is disturbing. Woman Undone is part of a journey, it doesn’t get into my success it concentrates on the dark stuff but in a way that is musically brilliant and Erin O’Reilly’s dancing is incredible.

Woman Undone is at the Black Box, for two nights only, on Friday November 1 and Saturday 2 at 8pm. Tickets are €22/20 from 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie

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