Absent Men and Proud Mad Women!

Read about some of my thoughts on issues raised by Marina Carr’s play The Mai, which I’m appearing in next week at Upstage Theatre, Monkgate, York. The play features a cast of 7 women and 1 man and is directed by Jan Kirk for York Settlement Community Players, a highly professional theatre group.

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The Mai Poster (Social Media Version)

As part of the celebrations, for York International Women’s Festival, theatre group York Settlement Community Players are staging “The Mai”  penned by Irish feminist writer Marina Carr.  The story features four generations of women and is set in 1979 Connemara, Ireland.

Mai is nicknamed “the Mai” by all her family, after an old Irish legend of a wild and terrible mother.  The nickname is apparently both mocking and affectionate.  She, for the past five years, has in fact brought up her four children alone, while her husband, Robert has gone”stravanging  around the world.”

YSCP_The_Mai_JRS-14-300x225 Elizabeth Sharrock (Millie) and Beryl Nairn (the Mai) photo by John Saunders

In “The Mai” there are not one but seven “proud, mad women.” As well as the Mai herself, (Beryl Nairn) there’s her 16 year old daughter Millie (Elizabeth Sharrock ) who narrates the back story as her 30 year old self.  Then there are Mai’s two sisters: Connie (myself)…

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Absent Men and Proud Mad Women!

The Mai Poster (Social Media Version)

As part of the celebrations, for York International Women’s Festival, theatre group York Settlement Community Players are staging “The Mai”  penned by Irish feminist writer Marina Carr.  The story features four generations of women and is set in 1979 Connemara, Ireland.

Mai is nicknamed “the Mai” by all her family, after an old Irish legend of a wild and terrible mother.  The nickname is apparently both mocking and affectionate.  She, for the past five years, has in fact brought up her four children alone, while her husband, Robert has gone”stravanging  around the world.”

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Elizabeth Sharrock (Millie) and Beryl Nairn (the Mai) photo by John Saunders

In “The Mai” there are not one but seven “proud, mad women.” As well as the Mai herself, (Beryl Nairn) there’s her 16 year old daughter Millie (Elizabeth Sharrock ) who narrates the back story as her 30 year old self.  Then there are Mai’s two sisters: Connie (myself) – the “sensible” one and Beck  (Jessica Murray) – the woman who yearns to “settle down” but can’t.

Why didn’t you lift me from that cot and take me away from that house of proud, mad women?” (Beck)

There are also the Mai’s aunties, her dead mother Ellen’s sisters:  fierce Julie (Sophie Buckley) and peacemaker Agnes (Vivienne Clare)  The matriarch presiding over the whole “Conemmara Click” is Grandma Fraochlan, (Elizabeth Elsworth). Her stories centre around her beloved late husband: the nine fingered fisherman.

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Elizabeth Elsworth (Grandma Fraochlan) photo by John Saunders
 The token man (!) is Mai’s errant and inconstant husband Robert (Damian Fynes)

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Damian Fynes (Robert) photo by John Saunders
 Although the women are by turns feisty, wild, independent, humorous and enduring, the story is as much about their absent men.  And whether the absence or existence of men ought to validate the identity of women.

As this comic-tragedy unfolds, the eternal difficulty of a woman defining herself emerges. Particularly in Ireland in the late seventies, when you couldn’t divorce a useless husband, Mai’s plight is all the more poignant.  An intelligent woman who has studied and is at least as competent a musician as her husband, her role is still of a woman waiting for a man to recognise her true value.

Her sisters Connie and Beck, the less intellectual also define themselves by their lack of a man or their experiences of men and family life.  Beck declares herself “a spinster” at 37.  Connie has apparently never been able to survive without a man since her 20s (“four engagements”), but still she toys with the idea.  (“What’s the big deal I’d like to know?  Sometimes I’d love to be on my own again.”)

Helen as Connie
Helen Sant (Connie) and Beryl Nairn (the Mai) photo by Mike Oakes

Yet the unspoken presence of men makes mysterious characters of Derek (Connie’s husband), Wesley (Beck’s husband), Grandma’s dead nine fingered fisherman husband and the three sisters’ estranged father.

Most of these women’s lives revolve around the behaviours of these men.  In the background we imagine Derek pulls the strings, preventing his wife Connie from visiting Mai so as not to be seen condoning Robert’s philandering.  And was the nine fingered fisherman really the gallant lover Grandma Fraochlan would have us believe?  Was he really lost at sea or did he run away?   How bad a father was the “brickie” that Mai’s mother Ellen had to marry?

These are fleeting questions that pass as shadows through the play.  Being part of the cast of “The Mai” also causes me to reflect on what exactly defines a strong woman or “a mighty woman” to quote Grandma Fraochlan?

Mighty women tha loh a ye! (Grandma Fracholan)

In 2016, I ask how far have we as women come?  It’s 37 years after the play’s setting, and don’t we  still sometimes feel we should define ourselves as mother, lover or wife, in order to seek society’s approval?  Don’t we sometimes sacrifice other parts of ourselves along the way?  Don’t people still judge a woman who chooses not to or who doesn’t have a family for whatever reason?

Feminism has only ever been about equal rights for men and women to be who they want to be.  And while it’s great to have a supportive partner and/or a family, a woman can still survive and enjoy life without either!  Yet maybe the media doesn’t always reflect these truths.

So I continue to puzzle over what really makes a strong woman?   And when I look at the characters of these “proud mad women,” are they really strong, I ask myself?

Perhaps you can tell me!  Come along and see our production March 16-19th at the Upstage Theatre, Monkgate, York.  41 monkgate

Tickets are available here..from the York Theatre Royal box office.

The writing is entertaining, lyrical, comedic, heart-rending.  The cast, under the astute direction of Jan Kirk, have worked hard to create some brilliant performances.  You’ll have an emotional rollercoaster of a time and never a dull moment, laughing or crying.  And as many a strong woman (or man) will tell you, isn’t life just like that sometimes?

 

 

 

Out of the Frying Pan, into the Gob! Why Pancake Day is Fabulous!

Today is Shrove Tuesday or to give it its more exciting name: Pancake Tuesday.  That’s a reason for being joyful, because pancakes are wonderful things.

Pancakes with cream cheese and garden spinach
Homemade pancake with spinach and cream cheese by Helen M Sant

In case anyone cares, the term “Shrove” comes from the term “to shrive” which means to forgive sins.  Our ancient British ancestors, Roman Catholics, went to church, confessed their wrongdoings to the priest and were shriven.  They then had to use up the filling food items in their home, before they embarked on a fast for Lent, the forty day period leading up to the most important feast in the Christian calendar: Easter.

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Merchant Adventurers Hall, York

In York, in the depths of the Merchant Adventurer’s Hall, they keep the old Pancake bell, which was rung every year on Shrove Tuesday.

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Pancake bell from the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall.

By today’s standards, it might be likened to eating all the chocolate before embarking on a week long detox.  Perhaps.  I wouldn’t know.  I don’t do detoxing.  Or fasting for that matter.  But I do make pancakes.

When not being creative telling stories, as the Yorkshire Storyteller,   I love to cook. In recent years, I’ve improved a lot at making pancakes – the flat English kind that is.

Fellow storyteller Adrian Spendlow is a master pancake maker.  So I asked him for his recipe and any secrets….

Adrian Spendlow’s Recipe for Pancakes

The secret is to make it eggy!
Ingredients

  • 2 eggs
  • a dollop of flour
  • a pinch of bicarbonate soda
  • a splash of milk
Method

Break the eggs into the flour, bicarbonate soda and milk, all mixed together.  Add water until it is thicker than soup.

Add a splosh of oil in the frying pan and when it’s red hot, ladle in enough to spread thinly across the pan.

Poke at the edges to free them as they cook, then once it isn’t runny in the middle, shake the pan to make sure it is moving.

Then flip! (Or for cowardly people, flip it with a fish slice!)
(N.B. the first one is always rubbish…)
Adrian Spendlow

What I love about this recipe is that Adrian hasn’t specified quantities, but concentrates on the “how “of cooking a perfect pancake.  His assertion that the first pancake you try is “always rubbish” may be seen as a comfort to less confident cooks or as a challenge to prove him wrong!
I would also add for the “cowards” who daren’t flip and break the pancake, you can also cook the base, which you know is ready (usually in seconds) when the edges crinkle, and then cook the top part under a hot grill!  Cheating?  Of course, but who cares?  As long as it tastes good!
Yellow_lemonsAs for fillings and accompaniments, lemon juice is pretty standard and some people like sugar or maple syrup.  My favourite sweet filling is cooked apple or cream!
For a savoury pancake you could try my suggestion above – spinach and cream cheese.
Oh, and if you’re feeling generous, why not leave a pancake outside for the fairies?  Maybe the first one…they won’t mind!
with fairies
Helen with fairies by GSmith Media.  To contact Graham follow this link