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Silent witness

David Hennessy spoke to the cast and crew of a new Irish play that premieres at the Old Red Lion this week.

Inspired by real life events, A Silent Scandal tells the story of the suppression of a scandal in an Irish boys school.

Using Irish talent based here in London, it was written by Meade Conway and is directed by Sally Hennessy.

The cast includes Ben Carolan (Sing Street and KIN) Senna O’Hara (Ann, the film about Ann Lovett), and actor-comedian Eoghan Quinn.

Meade explains the inspiration behind it: “About a year or two ago the school I went to had its own abuse scandals.

“When I began to talk to people, no one I know had been directly affected by it but one thing that became quite clear – there wasn’t as much surprise as there was disappointment.

“There was an air that people had known things were a bit off – but it was just the way things were done, so that they went along with it.

“I also realised that, inevitably, there would have been people who did try to change things.

“When I looked back, there were certain people, or certain movements that were demonised.

“I now scrutinise that stuff – was that just simplistic antagonism or was it someone trying to stand up for the right thing and they got shut down?

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“All I had was the outside perspective.

“What is unusual about the play is that it’s about a school but there are no student characters, it’s all the teachers.

“This play is exclusively behind closed doors conversations without you seeing the main incidents and never really knowing what happened concretely – just like the people involved in these things never know concretely.

“It’s where malicious actors can exploit these gaps between people’s knowledge and their own fears and insecurities.”

Director Sally concurs about the play being a ‘not surprising but disappointing’ story.

Sally says: “I don’t really like dwelling on the past too much, but this play’s a reflection on what used to happen.

“We’re putting it on today because we’re also just trying to say, ‘things are not as good as we think they are now’, things haven’t changed that much – which is scary.

“A lot of these things are still happening today but they’re just subtler, scarier.

“I was not necessarily thinking of things that happened years ago but in getting an audience to question themselves (about) how they’re living their lives now.”

Senna adds: “I first came to this piece through the Irish Creative Collective that we are all a part of here in London.

“I was really excited to work with Sally. She’s a really wonderful character and such a strong woman, I was confident that she would be really articulate and helpful in bringing out the important aspects of Turley’s character.

“We initially did one scene from the play at a scratch night and I suppose it was that brief professional interaction with Sally that encouraged me to commit to the finished play.

“Even with that one scene, she was talking to me a lot about Turley’s strength as a woman, and I knew in rehearsing the finished piece there would be a lot of space to flesh out Turley and explore that role of women within the context of the play.”

Ben Carolan adds: “What attracted me to the the play was most definitely the team working on it.

“Having seen a piece of the play at the Irish Creative Collective event in the London Irish Centre previously, and then when asked to be a part of it I knew I wanted to be without even reading the rest of the script.

“The character Meade had written in O’Toole interested me straight away. I only normally play characters who are a similar age, if not younger  than me so to be able to play an older character who’s also a teacher really intrigued me. When I met the rest of the cast and our director I felt we really got on well from the get go which is always important.”

Q: Can you tell us a bit more about the story? 

Sally: “It’s very unsaid. There’s a lot of alluding to things, something has happened with a student, no one really wants to talk about it.

“Some people maybe don’t know about it, some people do know about it but are turning a blind eye and the female character Turley, one of the teachers, is a very curious person.

“She asks a lot of questions and crosses a line. Things start to come out and she is faced with deciding to either sit back and not say anything and get on with her safe life or push for what’s true and what’s right. That could be detrimental for her.”

Meade: “There is a student kicking up a fuss and there’s a lot of bad stuff coming out. The school’s reaction, the headmaster’s modus operandi, is to demonise and isolate the student.

“That sort of thing is done a surprising amount, especially when scandals break.

“It’s amazing how often the person who is saying ‘something awful happened to me’ quickly demonised and antagonised – and usually they’re the most vulnerable.

“If and when something tragic happens, it’s striking to look back and (ask), ‘Why weren’t our instincts of sympathy?’

Sally: “Throughout rehearsals it took a long time for us to really get into what we thought happened because it’s all alluded to.

“It’s interesting how uncomfortable we all were because we’ve seen so much of this and we (Irish people) all know of a person, so it is sensitive.”

Eoghan Quinn, who plays embattled headmaster ‘Brennan’, says: “He’s a tortured soul, quite a tormented character.

“He has to live with himself but to do that, he has to lie to himself.

“He is a devout Catholic, he’s not a priest, but he’s completely religiously observant and really believes in the Bible, the Gospel, Heaven and Hell, so he fears mortality because he knows deep down what he’s done is so wrong.

“People who are very religious but who do wrong, live in a lot of pain because they believe that judgment is coming.

“Mortality, and fear of getting outed and caught and exposed, living with that fear and that anxiety, (is) like living in Hell – that is where Brennan is in his head.

“He’s a quintessentially Irish character, the headmaster of a school in Ireland at some point in the mid- to latter half of the 20th century.

“A lot of Irish teachers in that time in Ireland did a lot of bad things, needless to say, but Brennan still has a very presentable side to him.

“Researching for the role, it was very easy to find a lot of real-life examples of the character I play – which is very sad.

“It showed me how much is at stake for my character, because Brennan represents the old Ireland.

“He runs the school, and everything is at stake for him.

“If this comes out, it’s game over for him, for his status, for his standing in the community.

“In a small community in Ireland in the middle of the 20th century, your position as someone of authority as a religious person was really, really, important.

“My character is pretty much prepared to do anything to maintain (his) reputation and avoid judgement.

Meade says: “Around the time when I was showing the full script to Sally, Sinéad O’Connor passed away and Sally was listening to so much of her music and was very into the narrative of Sinéad O’Connor’s life – being demonised for antagonism to the Catholic Church but she’s  been vindicated.

“I knew the play was in good hands, because I think that was the energy I wanted.”

Sally: “I think the whole Turley character for me is her (Sinéad) in my head.

“I am a huge Sinéad fan, she’s such an example of someone who spoke honestly, and unapologetically, and was chastised for it.”

Meade: “She didn’t care about the optics and perhaps that’s a flaw.

“That was also a character flaw I tried to put into Turley, someone who’s doing the right thing because they believe it’s the right thing but perhaps if they had a bit more guile, things could come off better but then they play into the machinations of other characters because they are so direct.”

Q: Meade, you say the play was inspired by a scandal at your old school. Does that mean you feel a sense of responsibility with it being so close to home or how much did you take from that event?

“A fair amount, I wouldn’t say anything about any responsibility.

“If anything, it’s a way for me to make sense of it.

“We had a preview and I had someone come up to me who had only ever been to private school in England, and he said he knew exactly who these characters were, and it had given a new perspective on them.

“In a way I was like, ‘Oh, that’s great to hear’, but also, ‘That’s awful to hear’.

“I wasn’t expecting it, especially from someone who themselves wasn’t Irish.

“I always thought this was Irish through and through,

“What’s been good so far is when people have seen it they have been able to relate to it across the culture.

“I thought that would be impossible, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

“Especially with the whole genetic makeup of this play.

“I gave it to an Irish group of artists who then passed it on to Sally, who then found her Irish actors.

“We put it on in the London Irish Centre for an evening and people liked it.

“It’s just been Irish, Irish, Irish all the way through but it’s great to hear that it has that somewhat universal appeal so far.”

Q: How have the rehearsals been going?

Eoghan: “Brilliant – (which) speaks to the direction from Sally.

“Since the first reading all three of us just gelled, chemistry is so important.

“It’s been there from the beginning, they’ve been an absolute joy to work with, but that’s possible because of the director Sally (who) makes it a really, really easy space to work things through.

Sally: “They’re all amazing, really hardworking and talented which makes it really easy. 

Meade: “Each of the actors brings something to their characters that I didn’t anticipate as a writer but can definitely see adding to them.

“Eoghan does is a talented stand-up comedian so has a very natural aspect to him and usually the audience is warm to him because of that – then it makes the darker sides of his character that much sharper.

“I didn’t anticipate that, I thought he’s meant to be an innocuous character who has a hidden thing – but his interpretation sharpens the edges.

“Then with Ben, he’s very quick.

“Sally always wants a bit of action and movement with what she’s doing and Ben delivers on that really well.

“Senna herself was a very good matchup with the character because they both have a very strong sense of right and wrong.

“You saw Ann, she played that well, her character in that was aware that something’s going on and wants to act on it, but can’t.”

Is there a connection between the two projects, this and Ann. Do they contemplate some similar themes?

Senna says: “I suppose both pieces deal with this common theme of small town Ireland and the ‘sure I wouldn’t know what’s going on there’ attitude.

“I find that within the fictional landscape of the play, we can talk a bit more about, ‘What if this happened, and if she said something?’

“But with Ann, I was always extremely conscious that this was something concrete that happened.

“I find it a bit easier to detach myself from the weight of the subject matter in the play as opposed to when I was filming Ann, probably because this character is so far removed from myself, where as I was a school girl playing a school girl in Ann.

“It’s bitter sweet to be a part of two great projects both attempting to unearth Irelands past. It’s wonderful these stories finally being told but I wish they didn’t have to be.”

What about your previous work, Ben and appearing in big projects like Sing Street and KIN. What is it like to do a piece of theatre like this afterwards?

“Having been on big sets you can almost get lost in the sheer size of it all and it can take away from the acting side of it almost,” Ben says.

“Having never done a play before and when asked if I wanted to be apart of this one, it really scared me.

“It was then when I knew I had to do it.

“It’s very different to screen, in some ways this feels more pure and collaborative.

“When we first look at an act or a scene together and then to see how far we’ve brought it is really special.

“Sometimes on bigger sets your voice can feel not as important and it’s something that I’ve had to learn over the years is to speak up.

“I’ve really loved working on this new piece of theatre and I’m really looking forward to putting on three great shows and hopefully doing the writing justice.”

Q: You mention Eoghan’s comedy there, are there laughs in spite of the heavy subject matter?

Sally: “There should be comedy in everything, to be honest.

“Even in the trenches of wars people were having a laugh to get through.

“It (the play)’s not funny, obviously, the whole thing is very intense, but Eoghan is so hilarious. That’s why I cast him.

“It’s important to have that element of light at the start to lead into the dark at the end.

“I wouldn’t fancy a play that was just completely dark throughout, it’s always important to have that bit of balance.

“Eoghan’s just hilarious. They’re all funny in their own way but Eoghan is particularly gas.”

Eoghan: “You have to remember this character (is) somebody a lot of people like. A lot of monsters are very charming.

“To get into that position of authority, you need to be charming, and you need to appear professional.

“Power is quite seductive, and my character has a lot of power, he’s able to seduce people to give him that power.”

Meade: “Yeah, these aren’t empty laughs that we’re talking about.”

  • A Silent Scandal at Old Red Lion Theatre (418 St John Street, London EC1V 4NJ, 1- 3 February. See oldredliontheatre.co.uk.
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