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Audiences left 'shell-shocked' at world premiere of Irish play about sexual violence

The stage adaptation of Louise O’Neill’s best-selling book has made its world premiere in the Everyman in Cork.

Julie Kelleher and Louise O'Neil at the Everyman in Cork
Julie Kelleher and Louise O'Neil at the Everyman in Cork
Image: Patrick Redmond

AS THE WORLD focuses on Harvey Weinstein’s on-going trial - where the 66-year-old pleaded ‘not guilty’ on rape and criminal sex charges – a play has premiered in Cork based on a bestselling book about consent and sexual violence.

The stage adaption of Louise O’Neill’s young adult novel Asking For It has left audiences “overwhelmed by the entire experience”, with some being physically “unable to clap”, according to its author.

The topics addressed in Asking For It have resonated with audiences and O’Neill says she has received messages from people experiencing something akin to “shellshock” as the play was premiered at the Cork Midsummer Festival.

O’Neill’s 2015 novel deals with themes of sexual violence, focusing on the repercussions for main character Emma, played on stage by Irish actress Lauren Coe.

AskingForIt pic 2 photo by Patrick Redmond Lauren Coe as 'Emma' in Asking For it

For Julie Kelleher, artistic director at Everyman theatre Cork and co-producer of the play, this level of engagement has been the “holy grail” in creating in a “moment of shared experience” given the torment of Emma’s brutal story of rape and isolation.

In terms of the current climate in Ireland now, Kelleher admits the team “could not have foreseen” in 2016 the emergence of high-profile cases on rape and sexual consent such as the Harvey Weinstein trial, the Ulster Rugby trial this year and the #MeToo movement.

The book

Louise O’Neill tells TheJournal.ie that she wrote the book to “start conversations” on rape culture, slut-shaming and consent.

She said when writing something that addresses difficult topics, you hope to reach a wide audience, in particular those “who need to read these stories” to know they are not alone.

She feels the book has done its job on this front and people all over the world say that this book has “finally given them a voice” after trauma.

O’Neill says that the process has taught her “culture can change culture” and that art forms such as fiction or theatre are an “important way of facilitating difficult conversations”.

The play

O’Neill says what is heartening for her is that bringing this adaptation to stage is continuing that conversation and bringing in a different new type of audience.

It was Julie Kelleher’s idea to adapt the book for stage, a job which was done by Meadhbh McHugh in collaboration with director Annabelle Comyn under Landmark Productions.

Source: LandmarkIreland/YouTube

When Kelleher read O’Neill’s book it “took over her imagination” and she realised that this was a story that had to be told.

The idea came in late November 2015, at the same time that the #WakingTheFeminists movement was making noise in the Irish theatre scene. Kelleher says at the time Irish theatre was “failing miserably” in the area of female representation on stage and she felt something was needed to answer the calls from the #WakingTheFeminist movement.

When the idea had gained O’Neill’s enthusiastic interest and seal of approval, the team happily got to work to create the 2 hour and 40 minute play.

Along the way there has been close contact with the Cork Sexual Violence Centre and both women say that it is “important to make sure that information is available for people”.

They add that “sexual violence is so prevalent in our society” and those who see the play can be affected by the issues raised. O’Neill described as a “nice touch” the fact the theatre has placed posters and signs on toilet doors and around the building with information and contact details for rape crisis helplines.

The process of creation

Handing over the story rights was something O’Neill didn’t find difficult, knowing she had to separate herself from the story all along given the torment suffered by the main character Emma.

She says many readers “took that story to their hearts”.

O’Neill was happy to hand over her book to be adapted, telling TheJournal.ie she is not very precious about this aspect of her writing.

The team remark that the cast contains as “terrific ensemble” of actors and the chemistry between the young cast members shows how they have “all really bonded” knowing the seriousness of the purpose of the play and being aware of the issues.

The Sexual Violence Centre in Cork has appealed to those seeing the play to contact it if affected by the content by freephoning 1800 496 496.

The theatre has given an advisory that the play is suitable for those aged 16 and over, and this decision went back and forth. O’Neill and Kelleher say that if parents are comfortable with the children seeing this play and are ready to have the conversation, then “every child is different”.

After the festival in Cork, the play will move to the Abbey Theatre, Dublin from 9-24 November.

Regarding an Irish tour, Kelleher says the team “would adore that to happen” but no such plans have yet come to light.

The play will run until Saturday 23 June and tickets priced at €30, €27 for concession or €15 for students can be bought online or by calling the Everyman Box Office on 021 4501 673.

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