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women on stage

'Here, women seemed to be more wary of speaking out. That's changing now.'

Veteran theatre actress Eleanor Methven talks to us about her new role, Waking the Feminists, and women on stage.

IN HER EARLY 20s, Belfast actress Eleanor Methven realised something about her job: she was only getting to play very specific types of women.

She called them the ‘Kathleens and the Noras’ – women who very frequently popped up in Irish plays, women who always seemed to be the same. No diversity, no challenge, no change.

Rather than accept this as the state of play, Methven – who you may recognise from The Clinic, or films like The Snapper and Becoming Jane, as well as her long list of theatre performances – did something about it. She was spurred on in a big way by what was happening in Belfast’s Lyric theatre at the time.

“The new AD [artistic director of the Lyric] came over from England, as they nearly always did, and the plays were hugely male-oriented suddenly. If there were women’s roles, he brought actresses over from England to play them. That was a huge catalyst for Charabanc, it was quite extraordinary.

“That was the main thing where we thought ‘we’ve got to do something for ourselves to stop ourselves going mad’, really. And I suppose if Charabanc hadn’t happened, I definitely would have left.”

‘Your twenties are a hard time for actresses’

Pictured are actors StephMethven and Stephan Brennan in Rough Magic's comedy Plaza SuiteSource: /Photocall Ireland


Together with four other Belfast-based actresses, in 1983 she co-formed Charabanc Theatre. Their remit was to bring more women on stage alongside Kathleen and Nora - women they recognised, but also women they'd never met before.

So they went out to meet women, researched their stories and experiences, and created plays based on these.

"I was in Charabanc in my 20s and 30s, and that’s a hard time for actresses," says Methven when we meet in the Abbey Theatre. She's currently playing Mrs Clandon in a new production of George Bernard Shaw's comedy You Never Can Tell.

The women's roles for her back then were "incredibly uninteresting. You were an adjunct, and we wanted to be the person ourselves."

"But empowering ourselves and writing our own roles, after we finished Charabanc, it certainly carried on with me. It made me a different person, it made me a different actor," says Methven, who finds more interesting roles now that she's in her 50s.

"When we were running Charabanc, trying to encourage women to write, it was difficult, because they just weren't used to it. It’s interesting, women were writing novels, they were writing poems, they were being very successful at that," she says.

Perhaps, ventures Methven, it was because the 'done thing' was to marry young, have children, and - when you could - stay in the workforce, and some women may have found themselves restricted.

"Our thing was to go out and interview other women and write about their concerns and lives, should it be in a workplace or should it be in the political situation in the North, which was full of machismo, so the woman’s voice was really rarely heard. So that was our mission statement, to do that."

'I'm challenging what you mean'

Rough Magic’s production The cast of Plaza Suite: Jody O'Neill, Carl Kennedy, Nick Dunning and Eleanor Methven. Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Some people found this idea - five women setting up a theatre company to tell women's stories - challenging. "Any interview at all, people would say ‘it’s extraordinary just to see only women on the stage'."

Coincidentally, when Charabanc launched its first tour, a production of Observe the Sons of Ulster - which had an all-male cast - was also on tour. "My answer was, 'so it’s OK to look at the Sons of Ulster and you don’t notice that they’re all men, you go 'oh well, this is the war'. [But our play was set in] a linen mill."

You’d find that thing of people saying 'yes but you know what I mean', and you’d continuously find yourself at age 23 or 24 going, 'I do know what you mean, but I’m challenging what you mean'. It’s hard at that age because you do get smiled at and patted on the head and we got a lot of that.

One of the marks of success for Charabanc, says Methven, was when gender stopped mattering in how its impact on the Irish theatre landscape was perceived. "We became known not as the best women’s theatre company in Ireland, but one of the best theatre companies in Ireland... oh we’ve done something, fantastic."

They only ever had three plays that had all-female casts, she points out. The hard graft put into making Charabanc work - including flyering in estates to get the word out - stood to them, says Methven. "There is no doubt about it - it gives you a certain amount of confidence."

You Never Can Tell 

(L-R) James Murphy, Niall Buggy, Nick Dunning and Genevieve Hulme Beaman... A scene from You Never Can Tell

In Shaw's You Never Can Tell, Methven plays Mrs Clandon, "a typical Shavian character": a woman in her 50s, with older children, who has been separated from her husband for years and lives in Madeira.

Shaw was committed to exploring social ideas of the day in his work, and feminism gets a look-in here.

"She’s that mid-Victorian woman, very much influenced by the women’s rights movement, so she left England when that was at its height and she's been writing these treatises, '20th century children', '20th century medicine', 'how to do things for the 20th century'," says Methven of Clandon.

The play explores relationships between children and their parents, particularly grown up children and their parents. "Do you choose to follow your parents or go your own way, that's the dramatic conflict."

It's one of Shaw's lighter plays, with Methven recounting how the playwright said it was "the nearest he gets to a melodrama". 

"Shaw is for me a fascinating writer because he’s a feminist," says Methven. "And it’s always interesting, those people who think absolutely outside the box, because it wasn’t easy, it's not easy to be a feminist today, but certainly in those days and as a man it wasn’t."

The period-specific costuming sparked feminist anger in Methven (though she's keen to praise costume designer Joan O'Clery - it's the social prescription regarding women's clothing that affected her).

"One of the things that brings the time and women’s oppression to you most seriously when doing Shaw is wearing the feckin’ corset," she says.

That kind of constriction I find… it really induces something in me where I just want to rip it off. It’s a symbol, if you like, of all that stuff. But certainly, it’s a continuous fixation with me with any female character from a previous era, what were her restrictions, what was she permitted to do and what was she not permitted to do.

Waking the Feminists

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No doubt Mrs Clandon would have found much to love in the Waking the Feminists (WTF) movement, which started as a response to the Abbey Theatre's Waking the Nation programme for 2016.

Methven was one of the women who took to the stage at the launch to rail against sexism in theatre. She described the Waking the Nation situation as "a huge shock to my system".

For her, WTF is as a catalyst for change, but it also makes her reflect back on her own career - how much has changed since 1983 and those nascent days of Charabanc?

"Lian [Bell, founder of WTF] is greatly congratulated, it has concentrated the mind wonderfully. The pressure has to be kept up for that to manifest itself in some way," says Methven.

What I said on stage that day, semantics is incredibly important in feminism. In anything it’s important, in race [it's important]. You’ve got to be careful how you name things, because the naming of parts has been by the status quo, so you’ve got to challenge that at every turn.

'I felt depressed and quite numb'

Methven's feminist realisation that there were not enough diverse roles for women on stage was "incremental". For her first acting job, she worked with a theatre and education company in Coleraine, and toured schools where she played a range of character parts.

"Then when you get into the rep system, then you’re playing the Kathleens and the Noras and I just thought: This is deeply dissatisfying. Then the roles dried up completely."

You do tend still to be cast in the shadow - you are the adjunct, whether you be the mother, sister or girlfriend as opposed to the protagonist.

Charabanc didn't presume that "by the time we get to 2015 it will be Amazonian", but WTF only reinforced how little things had changed. 

When the news broke, says Methven: "I actually felt a bit depressed and quite numb because I did think... for a few moments you think 'what the hell was the point of anything I did', was actually how it made me feel, to be perfectly truthful."

I just I was reeling, I was really reeling for about 24 hours and very angry.

After talking to other theatre women, she realised that "the landscape has hugely changed, of course it has, there are great strides have been made, it’s just the blindness".

That blindness, or unconscious bias, was acknowledged by outgoing Abbey Theatre director Fiach Mac Conghail in his speech at the WTF launch.

"I was not thinking about gender balance.... I failed to check my privilege and I regret that," he told the assembled crowd, pledging to bring about change at the theatre.

Methven can see how WTF has changed people, having witnessed younger actresses "who would never have used the f-word before and never come out with feminism or anything like that, suddenly coming out on social media doing it".

You go - yes, that is great - that is a released voice, a released voice is always good.

When Methven left Charabanc and moved to the Republic to work, she noticed a difference in her own peer group compared to the North or Britain.

"Here, they seemed to be much more wary of speaking out. They seemed to have been a great deal more silenced. That's changing now."

(L-R) Caoimhe O'Malley, Eleanor Methven, James Murphy and Genevieve Hulm...

She is incredibly inspired by the abortion rights and Repeal the Eighth campaign, saying the "young women involved in that inspire me daily".

"That again is one of those things: you were out in 1983 [campaigning for abortion rights] and you go, how long Lord, how long. But the push is on now and it’s ripe for change, but those young feminists there, I think they are amazing, they are organised, and they understand. They get the politics and they get the semantics."

She is hopeful for the future, but Methven is cautious too. "I think there is a huge learning curve in the theatre still to come," she says. But the first step, of "getting it out in the open" is one she welcomes.

Methven's own feminism is something that helps her to be a supportive figure for young actresses, and with her latest play she is enjoying getting to put this into action. 

"I had a lot of older actresses, and just older women in general, who were very kind to me and you just have to pass it on," she explains.

"That’s where my feminism occurs as well, just to be there," she says of working with younger actresses.

To encourage them and make sure you can speak out, because they perhaps have more to lose, so make sure you can stick your neck out if they can’t, that’s really where the battle is for me.

You Never Can Tell runs at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin until 6 February. To book tickets and find out more, visit the official website.

Read: Fury, apologies, and calls for respect as feminists shake the Irish theatre world>

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