The Abbey Theatre (also known as the National Theatre of Ireland) first opened its doors in 1904. In 1925 it became the first state subsidised theatre in the English speaking world. To this day it receives funding from the Irish taxpayer to continue promoting and developing Irish theatre.
As it is funded by the state (as well as by ticket sales obviously) it has a duty to make theatre accessible to as many people as possible. As a result each time a new play opens there, it runs a promotion called the ‘First free preview’. On the opening night tickets are given out free, on a first come first served basis. They are allocated at 6.30pm on the day (showtime is at 7.30pm on the Abbey Main Stage; or 8pm on the Peacock Stage) to whoever is standing in line. This is a godsend to poor students; struggling actors or office employees toiling away at the coalface of administration in the industrial wastelands of county Dublin. If you are willing to stand in line for a while you’ll have a civilised evening gratis.
Some weeks ago, when I was an audience member at the Ray D’Arcy television show (another free ticket – my nose is highly attuned to freebies) the Irish writer Louise O’Neill was one of the guests. From Clonakilty in Cork, in 2014 she wrote a bestselling book called ‘Asking for it’. It was a novel about an 18 year old schoolgirl who was gang-raped by members of the local GAA team; and the aftermath that it has on her and her family’s life.
Shortly after publication came the ‘Paddy Jackson case’ where in a chilling parallel to the book, Ireland rugby internationals Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were accused and charged with the rape of a young woman in Belfast. That culminated in a nine week trial earlier this year that saw them acquitted, which led to protests across the country after the contents of the WhatsApp group the men participated in, were released, showing their appalling attitudes towards women.
O’Neill’s book has now been adapted into a stage play by Maedhbh McHugh and directed by Annabelle Comyn. It premiered in the Everyman Palace Theatre in Cork this year, before transferring to Dublin.
Having seen the author speaking; and following the Paddy Jackson case; and most importantly having been the foreman of a jury on a two week trial concerning the serial rape of a minor, earlier this year, I was keen to see the play. (You can read about my jury experience HERE) I have a unwelcome understanding of the legal machinations of these cases because of my jury service. Therefore I was curious to see a play from the perspective of the victim of such a crime.
The entire run for the play was fully sold out when I went online to purchase tickets. The Free Preview was therefore my only option. As luck would have it, it was pouring with rain yesterday afternoon when I arrived at the theatre at 5.30. The queue was small and I acquired a prime seat.
The play itself is stunning. It paints a very real picture of a teenage girl Emma, enjoying her life with her friends. Until that fateful night they attend a house party to celebrate the boys’ sporting victory. The consequences are devastating for her. Not simply from the actual attack but the subsequent attack on her character – from her friends; the newspapers; her community. Like in the Jackson case, this fictional tale is a tale in the time of social media. Like in the Jackson trial, Emma is blamed for wearing the wrong clothes; for being a slut; for leading the boys on; for being vindictive by ruining their futures. In other words she’d been ‘Asking for it’.
It is brilliantly written and acted – Lauren Coe gives a heartbreaking performance as Emma. She is ably supported by the hugely talented young cast. A riveting and harrowing play, this is one of the best I’ve seen in years. There was a stunned silence at the end of the play before the applause erupted. I rarely give a standing ovation, but did so gladly in this instance.
Running for another two weeks I highly recommend this play. Unless you already have a ticket, it’s unlikely you’ll find one now. though. I suspect however, that this play will continue after this run so watch out.