In April I was asked to be part of the Royal Court Theatre in London's PIIGS week - part of the 'Big Idea' in the Open Court writers' festival, under the new Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone. The idea is for a week of plays, readings and interviews exploring the effect of Austerity on the affected European countries and came originally from an idea of the London based playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell, who was keen to write about the crisis affecting Greece where many of his family still live. Each of the five 'PIIGS' countries Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain would have a dedicated night of theatre in the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.
I was told I would be paired with a UK playwright (in my case Kieran Hurley from Glasgow) and together we would curate the 'Ireland' evening including two short plays. We were both commissioned to write the plays; mine being about the effect of austerity measures on ordinary people and Kieran's written in response to it. These plays would then be staged alongside my recorded interviews and discussions.
I was absolutely delighted and intrigued to be a part of the PIIGS project. I think it must be totally unique in its aspiration to explore the effect of austerity on European citizens in such a communal, theatrical and open way. The effect of austerity is so profound on Irish consciousness, society, family and business that it is actually hard to believe the Irish bailout only took place in 2010. It feels like we have been locked in this paralysis for far longer.
My play is about an ineffectual little protest meeting concerning education cuts. Four people show up; one being the teacher who is about to lose her job, a parent who fancies her, the janitor and a woman who is desperately worried about her autistic son's future. It's not an untypical situation and can hopefully provide some insight into how incredibly overwhelmed people are by the nature of Ireland's debt and our apparent disenfranchisement when it comes to dealing with it.
To me all politics is people and Irish people are suffering enormously under the weight of Bank and Sovereign Debt and Europe's political insistence on economic austerity as a road forward. There is no doubt that Irish Banks, Businesses, Developers and many ordinary people borrowed ludicrous amounts of money during the boom and many are now strangled by an unsustainable debt. People are cold, and that is no exaggeration, many people cannot afford to heat their homes. Suicide rates are alarming as are rates of unemployment, mortgage default and emigration. But there is also such a sense of failure and disillusionment permeating society, continually fuelled by austerity and seeming to crush any real hope of future for families in this country. There is also a great anger, but it seems to circle, and turn back in on itself because we all feel a little responsible for allowing the Celtic Tiger to run on unfettered, even those of us who never reaped the benefit of his roar. So I suppose it is this inarticulacy, this blighted response to a renewed poverty for Ireland that I want to explore in my short play.
I have done three main interviews as part of this project and a series of short questions for a voxpop at the top of the evening. My interviews are with Thomas Byrne, a young Irish Politician who sat in Government when the collapse came in 2010 and is currently sitting in the Senate. A 37 year old Irish woman who is about to emigrate to Canada with her husband and three young sons following her husband's loss of business and difficult debt situation and Simon Carswell, an economics expert and Washington Correspondent for the Irish Times.
Interviewing has been quite a fascinating process and not entirely easy. Many people are nervous about putting their story out there. There is still quite a bit of stigma associated with financial failure and then some people who are truly suffering feel they don't want to talk about the enormous stress and hopelessness because they have to deal with it every minute of every day and talking about it just gives it another level of credence and control over their lives. Some people seem to be hugely politicized by the crash, following all the news events and trying vainly to understand what it all means whilst others just completely tune out and refuse to listen to it anymore such is their sense of isolation and despair. But thankfully most of us still make it out of bed in the morning, enjoy the sight of the birds in the trees and work earnestly to find a shaft of hope for a people who deserve better.
PIIGS provides a wonderful opportunity for me to link with other playwrights in similarly affected countries and to learn from their response to their own unique situation. It is hugely ambitious artistically and politically and seems motivated by a healthy sense of curiosity and solidarity with fellow European citizens.
PIIGS: New Short Plays is at the Royal Court Theatre until Saturday 29 June www.royalcourttheatre.com 0207 565 5000