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.”
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.
The token man (!) is Mai’s errant and inconstant husband Robert (Damian Fynes)
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.”)
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.
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?