Gutted, written by Marlowe Supported Artist Sharon Byrne (pictured above) will have its premiere in The Marlowe Studio next month. It’s a funny and poignant black comedy set in a fish factory in 1980s Dublin. We asked Sharon, who lives in Whitstable but grew up in Dublin, to tell us more about how the play came about.
When did the idea for Gutted come to you?
Gutted, previously entitled The Blue Coats, had its humble beginnings in a little house by the sea in Whitstable, Kent. The germ of the idea for Gutted came from my childhood growing up in Dublin in the 1980s. I was a 1960s baby; growing up in the 1970s had its challenges. My parents separated when I was about 11, after which I moved to Finglas, North Dublin, to my grandparents’ house, along with my two brothers and my mother.
While living there, I came across young women who were working hard for a living in the local fish factory. I didn’t know it then, but these women had a huge impact on my life. I’d see them every day walking by my grandparents’ house, and tried to imagine what it would be like to be them. They’d walk by my window wearing plastic caps (shower caps), blue coats and Wellington boots, smoking roll-ups and chatting about their day. It was usually early morning, so either they were on their way home from working all night, or they were on their way back to the factory. God only knows. But they never stopped chatting and laughing. They were aged between 16 and 50 or more – some just kids themselves, and some women who had worked in a fish factory half of their lives.
Why did these women mean so much to you?
The women were the impetus for me to strive for more in my life and the inspiration for Gutted. Not that there was anything wrong with working in a fish factory. I had the utmost respect for these women. Fair play to them. They worked hard and played hard; they were providing for their families. They were tough hard-working women and I admired them. But they were stuck in many ways too and seemed contented with the cards that life had dealt them. I wasn’t. I wanted more! I had bigger dreams and ambitions. I didn’t know then that I was going to be a writer. Nor, was I aware I would one day write a play about them.
When did you become a playwright?
I wrote my first play in 2001. Charlie’s Wake played at the Finborough Theatre in Earls Court for a month and was directed by Anne O’Leary and received good reviews. So I had a great start as a playwright. A year later though, I moved out of London to Whitstable with my then-husband (divorced now – that went well) to begin a family. This part of my life was a disaster really. One IVF treatment after the other and no baby, takes its toll even on the strongest woman and the closest relationship.
While going through fertility treatment, I needed an outlet. And I found one. I wrote the first draft of The Blue Coats (Gutted). I couldn’t believe I could actually write while going through this awful time, but it was an escape for me. I loved plays. I had been hugely influenced by Martin McDonough, (The Trilogy Of Leenane), Connor McPherson (The Weir and Port Authority), and other new writers in the late 1990s. I admired theatres and writers who pushed the boundaries in new writing; Paines Plough, with writers such as Sarah Kane (Crave) and Mark Ravenhill, influenced my work as a playwright. It was okay to swear, to let the angst out, write about controversial subjects. Okay to talk about issues through my writing. I was trying to find my voice and that was difficult. I am Irish, brought up Catholic, and I lived in the UK. I had lived here for a long time.
What did you want to say with your writing?
I was influenced by a great many things. I went back to the drawing board with Gutted. I thought about the women in the fish factory and how hard it was being a girl/woman growing up in the 1980s in Ireland. Nothing wrong with setting a play in the 1980s in Dublin, I thought. So I went for it. There were issues that needed exploring. And this gave me an opportunity to unleash them.
In Ireland, girls still knew very little about contraception; we couldn’t just go and get the Pill, or condoms from the doctor. We had to have permission, they were generally frowned upon. They were not sold over the counter at Boots or a local chemist. If you went into a chemist asking for anything like that, you were scorned upon, you were filth – sure you may as well have had sex right there on the chemist floor, in front of the pharmacist. She’d give you the most horrifying look. And if you couldn’t get contraception you certainly couldn’t get an abortion. Jesus, you’d be crucified. Women still can’t get an abortion in Ireland, yet there is now gay marriage.
Womens’ rights were not on the top of the agenda. Although women now have more choices, they still have to travel to England for an abortion. Young girls were getting pregnant. One of the other stories that influenced Gutted was the true story about a young girl who got pregnant by a member of the family. She was unable to have an abortion. Catastrophic. So she had to go through with the birth. I think the child was put up for adoption. I once worked with an adorable young girl from the south of Ireland, in the same situation. She was forced to give up her baby and that was in the 1980s. It would shame her and her family. Issues such as these hadn’t moved forward very much.
Women also worked very hard and for little pay. These particular women in Gutted, were harassed because of what they did for a living. Some of them were still teenagers. So for them, a night out was a release. It is where the drama unfolded. Gutted touches upon all these issues. What kept them going was their sense of humour about life. That is why I wrote Gutted with a sense of humour: humour got them through the tough times in their lives. Even the most unbelievable times!
How did your association with The Marlowe begin?
In January last year I sent Gutted to The Marlowe, hoping it would be taken up as part of their Roar! project for new writing. Although it was a developed and finished play, and didn’t fall into the category of a work in progress for Roar!, The Marlowe loved it – half of the office read it! After several meetings, The Marlowe offered to support me and to put it on at The Marlowe Studio.
Gutted: The Marlowe Studio, Tuesday 21-Saturday 25 February. Book here.