IT IS now more than 20 years since Patricia Burke Brogan’s powerful play, Eclipsed, received its premiere in Galway from Punchbag Theatre Company.
Winner of a Fringe First at Edinburgh in 1992, the play was one of the first works to tell the harrowing story of the Magdalen laundries and the women who were incarcerated within their walls. Widely acclaimed during its inaugural run, Eclipsed has since gone on to receive more than 60 productions both in Ireland and overseas, winning a Moss Hart Award in the US in 1994.
Eclipsed will now receive a major new production from Mephisto Theatre Company which will open at the Town Hall Theatre on August 22.
Directed by Niall Cleary, Mephisto’s staging has a direct link with the first production of Eclipsed in actress Margaret O’Sullivan who played Mother Victoria in Punchbag’s staging and now takes the role of laundry inmate Nellie Nora. It is O’Sullivan’s second appearance with Mephisto, following her terrific turn as Grandma Fraochlain in Marina Carr’s The Mai which Mephisto presented at the Town Hall last year.
“I have lots of memories, Eclipsed has been a huge part of my time in Galway,” Margaret tells me as she reflects on that landmark first production. “When we were doing the play it was the time when the story of Eamon Casey and Annie Murphy came out.
“At the time we didn’t know about the story of the laundries, it was something hidden. Doing the play again now after 20 years and playing a different character, we know better now what happened because the women have since come forward and told what happened to them. This time around I’m more aware of the history of the Magdalenes.”
Margaret describes the character she plays in Eclipsed.
“Nellie Nora is a victim of the whole lot, of circumstance, of how she was brought up.” Margaret says. “She’s institutionalised. As far as Nellie Nora is concerned the world outside is too painful. Nellie Nora has become part of the furniture, she’s a hard worker, she can’t go outside, she feels protected in the laundry. She’s been in the laundry for years and it’s too scary for her to go out.
“When we were doing the play in 1992 I called up to the Magdalen laundry in Forster Street. It had become a home for old people as I thought. I told them I was doing research for the play and this old lady said ‘Do you know what this place is? It’s a home for unmarried mothers, would you like to meet them?’ So I went in and met them and all of them were Nellie Noras. At the time I didn’t realise the significance of where I was.”
A native of Kerry, O’Sullivan was a familiar figure in Galway’s arts scene in the early nineties, both with Punchbag and the fondly-remembered Flying Pigs comedy troupe. She fills me in on how she hooked up with Mephisto and what she has been doing since leaving Galway.
“Mephisto got in touch with me when they were casting The Mai so I auditioned and got the part of Grandma Fraochlain,” she says. “I asked them to keep me in mind if they had any other parts coming up and they then asked me to audition for this new run of Eclipsed.
“It’s great working with a company who do plays with fantastic parts for women like The Mai and Eclipsed. As for what I’ve been doing, I left Galway in 1997, I went back to school and did a degree in English and history and then a master’s in drama and theatre at UCC and was involved with Dramsoc productions while I was there though I haven’t done a lot of theatre since then.
“I was teaching drama a bit and did a few film roles, I got to act opposite Martin Sheen in Stella Days, that was great, it was like Hollywood come to my doorstep!”
O’Sullivan is relishing the experience of revisiting Eclipsed 21 years after she first featured in the play;
“There’s a great cast so I am enjoying the rehearsals,” she says. “When I hear them saying the lines I can hear the actors from the first production in 1992. The play still packs a punch today. I just try to give Nellie Nora the dignity the character deserves.”
Eclipsed runs at the Town Hall from Thursday August 22 to Saturday 31 at 8pm nightly, with a preview performance on Wednesday 21. Proceeds from the play’s programme will go to COPE which is moving into the site of the Magdalen laundry on Forster Street.
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie