The Last Days of Cleopatra is actress and playwright Laoisa Sexton’s highly anticipated follow up to For Love, the breakout hit of the 1st Irish Theatre Festival that went on to play off-Broadway at the Irish Rep before successfully touring Ireland. Cleopatra will open at Urban States in Manhattan in August. Cahir O'Doherty speaks to the writer who plumbs the chaos of modern Irish life like no other.
Can you respect a writer if you don’t respect their record collection? What happens when you find out that the nation’s most popular playwright is also the biggest square you ever met? Do you instantly stop relating to their work?
The answer is yes and no. You don’t really have to buy into the writer’s lifestyle to admire his or her work, but the fact is that Irish playwriting has been looking increasingly square, increasingly stuck in front of kitchen sink sets from the 1950s or dressed up in the garish fashions of the 1930s or 1970s. It’s become a problem now that we’re in the second decade of the 21st century.
Even the most surrealistic, out-there Irish scripts are still being performed in front of these run down rural living rooms with Sacred Hearts nightlights and rows of ducks. It’s as if time has stood still. No one has an iPhone or sends an email.
There’s only one way to tell an Irish story now, apparently. You have to excavate the past and ignore the present, and that can be death to the creative impulse.
Actress Laoisa Sexton has felt the frustration over the ways in which Irish stories are told so deeply that she became a playwright to challenge them. She has also been conscious of the ways in which women can still be sidelined or edited out of the bigger story.
“I’m not interested about plays set in old living rooms,” Sexton tells the Irish Voice. “The one thing I just cannot stand is how every play is set in these places. It’s called a play for a reason.
“I believe in giving the audience a show. I love words and I love language but I feel like a lot of plays now are so lazy.
“Writers just set things in kitchens because that’s where life is. You’ll watch a kettle boil and someone go to the fridge and, oh, there’s the nosy neighbor from outside who came to move the plot along. I’m not interested in any of that.”
It should be noted that all of the most frequently performed contemporary plays are by men, and judging by their output and frames of reference, most of them are fairly conservative in their outlook. That’s not the world of Sexton’s latest, The Last Days of Cleopatra.
“This play was inspired by my own mother’s death. She was a dancer and she suffered through a long illness. It’s not a play about death. It’s about how people function in something as hard as that,” Sexton says.
People have asked Sexton if that’s the case, then why isn’t her new play set at a hospital bed?
“But that’s the point. Just because someone’s dying doesn’t mean that everyone else’s lives stop going on. I used to come home from the hospital every day, distraught at some new bad thing that had happened. But then I’d step on the Luas (tram) and be faced with the daily reality of other people’s lives and I’d have to reconcile them with my own. I guess a lot of my inspiration can come from very dark things.”
In the end The Last Days of Cleopatra is about that most Irish of things Sexton says, a family that doesn’t communicate. They’re about to lose the only thing that holds them together and the question is, will they survive as a family?
“There’s a gay son whose father has never accepted the fact. The son has looked for validation from his father that has never come. Meanwhile, the father has cheated on the mother. None of it is tidy. It’s raw. It’s really love, sex, forgiveness and a lot of dancing.”
Sexton comes from a poor family herself and knows how much it has shaped her outlook. The crisis in the play is close to some of her own experiences growing up.
“We moved around a lot. There was a lot of survival. I’d be in schools for three months and then we’d move again,” she recalls.
“We never owned a house. Because of that I’m very used to chaos. I’m good with it. I kind of identity with it more.”
The father in Cleopatra, played by accomplished actor Kenneth Ryan, used to be in a showband in the 1970s, we discover. He’s a ladies man and very much from that vanished world. Then we hear of his wife who was very beautiful and whom he loved very much.
“But he could never possess her the way he wanted to,” says Sexton. “Fear of that fact can eat at the soul. That can lead people to destroy each other.”
Michael Mellamphy (another gifted U.S.-based Irish actor) plays Sexton’s brother. The father, daughter and son haven’t seen each other for a year when the play opens. They bump into each other at the hospital.
“I don’t want to give to much away but I think you’ll need seat belts for this one,” promises Sexton.
“My character is very self destructive, she’s broken up with her boyfriend and she’s given up her life to look after her Ma in the hospital. She and her brother are fighting because her brother is avoiding the hospital.”
Sexton’s no stranger to controversy. Some audience members were appalled by the frankness of some of the carry on in her last work For Love. They had no problem telling her either.
“One woman wrote that she was horrified by the play. It was actually great to hear, but also hard to hear, because if you believe the good you have to believe the bad. It’s not the sex stuff in my work that upsets the most; I think it’s the intimacy that’s seen as more dangerous. I’m always trying to push it further.”
After the business of writing a new play there are unique challenges for contemporary Irish actors and theater makers living here to gets to grips with. Sexton lives in Brooklyn and has discovered that American theater companies will often suggest she go to Ireland to find more Irish actors and companies to tour her work with.
In return Ireland-based companies will tell her to look harder on this side of the pond. Because of that she wishes there was more structure and support for Irish actors here.
Thankfully she’s prepared to do whatever it takes to get her work seen, even if that means dreaded Kickstarter campaigns that make her feel naked or beholden.
“We went on a tour without a stage manager or a director,” she laughs. “It’s unheard of. One of our actors did all the tech. We were like the Flintstones going around the country.”
But she wants to clarify that she’s not moaning, nor is she looking for a handout.
“I have been supported and I am so lucky. Ciaran and Charlotte’s (of the Irish Repertory Theatre) level support is unheard of. It was so great of them to take a rookie like me and stamp off-Broadway on my play.
“Everything else was like a cherry on top. What I would love to see is some structure set now up to support the growing community of Irish actors and performers here. The point is to get our work out there.”
The Last Days Of Cleopatra will play at Urban Stages beginning August 20.