The Ladies Cage

Maureen McManus
Scary Little Girls Productions
Finborough Theatre
(2007)

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Maureen McManus' play is a new take on a well-known period of Irish History, as seen through the eyes of the unsung heroes - its women. The late Victorian era when the Land Wars were in full swing was a particularly dramatic time, acting as a precursor to the full strike for Irish independence. McManus (and producer Rebecca Mordan, whose brainchild this play is) focused on three turbulent years between 1879 and 1882 when the tenant farmers revolted against crippling rents, eventually succeeding in putting their masters out of business.

John Terry's slick production brought together the two contrasting worlds of 1880s Ireland in a striking way, choosing, along with designer Cleo Pettit, to split the staging area in two - one half, all genteel china cabinets and wine glasses; the other dirt-poor rubble that represented the pitiful hovels that the tenant farmers could never call their own. By the time the audience entered, the cast were already on stage, going about their daily business, making us feel that we were eavesdropping on a moment in history.

This is primarily the story of Anna Parnell (played by Lucianne McEvoy), sister to the nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell, the man who was ultimately responsible for driving forward the nationalist cause using the Parliamentary process. The play charts her movement from well-brought up rich girl to political activist. She was a founder of the Ladies' Land League which supported tenants throughout the eviction process. The League, far from being a Nineteenth Century coffee morning equivalent, provided the tenants with money and somewhere to go when their protests failed, but at great personal cost to the women involved. Often, they were beaten by unscrupulous policemen and locked up under ancient prostitution laws. McEvoy gave a strong performance as the charismatic, passionate and intelligent Anna. The rest of the cast proved their required versatility handling several different characters including Jamie Belton who played two characters on separate sides of the divide - the violent RIC man, Kennedy, who wasn't above walloping the tenant women as he evicted them, and nationalist John Dillon, highly suspicious of the women's motives and capabilities in joining the fight.

The sad Irish ballads that interspersed the dialogue lent the proceedings an extra poignancy. Yet McManus knew when to uplift the piece with humour too, such as the policeman who offered his hand in marriage to one member of the Ladies Land League - if only she would tell him where their guns were hidden!

Though The Ladies Cage was a worthwhile play to stage, introducing us not only to heroines like Anna, her sister Frannie (Rebecca Mordan) and Jennie O'Toole (Tracey Kearney) but also to the plight of ordinary women for whom starvation was only just around the corner. However, I'm not entirely convinced of the premise that Irish women were airbrushed out of history. That women stood alongside their male counterparts in the fight for independence is well-documented (indeed the first female to be elected to the Westminster Parliament was the nationalist Irishwoman, Countess Marckiewicz, though she did not take her seat). The play seeks to redress this perceived imbalance and in doing so perhaps tips the scales too far the other way, suggesting that the women did all the work while the men put their feet up in prisons. Equally, Parnell himself (Nathan Rimell) gets a slightly raw deal here, depicted as a mere member of the chattering classes rather than the supreme orator for which he was justly famous.

Reviewer: Bronagh Taggart