Cork writer and activist: My anger and confusion led me to rewrite play on abortion

Cork writer Laura Wyatt O’Keeffe has re-written her award-winning play ‘Vessel’ for a new audience - and is showcasing it online, says PAM RYAN
Cork writer and activist: My anger and confusion led me to rewrite play on abortion

Laura Wyatt O'Keeffe. Picture: Emma Micallef

THE Covid-19 pandemic and consequent lockdowns have brought with them many challenges. The arts industry has struggled to survive where once it thrived. However, in some cases the past 21 months have brought opportunities to increase accessibility to the arts, without faltering on enjoyment.

Cork-native Laura Wyatt O’Keeffe is a renowned writer, performer, facilitator, researcher, collaborator, teacher, and activist – all skills which came together to bring us Vessel.

Vessel by Laura Wyatt O'Keeffe, Produced by Arch 468. Picture: Korey J Ryan
Vessel by Laura Wyatt O'Keeffe, Produced by Arch 468. Picture: Korey J Ryan

This award-winning play is set in 2018 Ireland. Abortion is illegal. An underage girl has died. Maia, a doctor’s receptionist, intentionally impregnates herself to stage a public protest for the legalisation of abortion. And, in a world where digital media is king, people and press take notice and divides begin to form.

Initial drafts of the play were first developed back in 2014 at Corcadorca’s SHOW festival.

“There was campaigning, and marches around abortion rights and healthcare rights for women. But, for me anyway, the idea of abortion being legalised seemed really far away.

“[ Vessel] really challenged people’s ideals and opinions, and interrogated the idea of activism, and the binary views of activism, and action versus talk.”

Following this successful run of Vessel, Laura set it aside for a time, travelling and working on other projects.

“I returned to London in 2018 and knew I wanted to bring the show to Edinburgh.”

She sought to do so in August. However, the referendum on abortion had passed in Ireland the previous May. She would be presenting her show in a rather different world.

“When that vote went through, I felt really relieved and really proud that the nation had voted to trust women. 

"Then I suppose I felt really angry and confused that in the 21st century we had voted on women’s bodies. That a whole nation had voted on the right for a woman to choose for herself and for couples to choose for themselves, what’s right for them.

Vessel by Laura Wyatt O'Keeffe, Produced by Arch 468. Picture: Korey J Ryan
Vessel by Laura Wyatt O'Keeffe, Produced by Arch 468. Picture: Korey J Ryan

“And I suppose that fuelled me to rewrite the play and rather than acknowledging or documenting what had been happening in Ireland up to this point, I was trying to ask, why? How did we get here? And what’s the next step?”

She questions the daily inequalities faced by women even still, from the gender pay gap, pink tax and women’s safety.

“Especially this year, with the Sarah Everard case in the UK, and going to the peaceful protests in London, and the police reaction to those protests. The very danger of living in a female body, in a woman’s body, of being a woman, became really apparent. 

"And this idea of your body being weaponised or your body making you at risk became such a big thing that I couldn’t quite understand. And I couldn’t settle within myself.”

In earlier stagings of the play, Laura herself performed the part of Maia, but since recasting the part to fellow Corkonian, Julie Maguire, she has been able to approach the script with more “ferociousness”, tackling some of those questions she could not reconcile, and creating a play that undoubtedly starts conversations, difficult as they might be.

Speaking about her friend and colleague, it seems Julie has had a great influence on the final product too.

Julie Maguire as Maia in Vessel by Laura Wyatt O'Keeffe, Produced by Arch 468. Picture: Korey J Ryan
Julie Maguire as Maia in Vessel by Laura Wyatt O'Keeffe, Produced by Arch 468. Picture: Korey J Ryan

“It’s been a joy to see [Julie] be part of the project and play the lead and just do incredible work. She’s brought more than I could have imagined and I feel incredibly grateful for that, to have her along this journey with me.”

And now, Vessel is available to stream online. The digital broadcast seems a fitting medium as digital media plays such a large part in how the story unfolds.

“The pandemic has been incredibly difficult for everyone. We have lost artists and the potential of really incredible work and bodies of work, as well as the usual things, like funding and spaces and venues.

“But I think one of the things that has come out of it is it has given access to small companies or artists like myself to be able to create work in a digital way, in a really high-quality way. And that can be shared globally.

“Being able to share this work to Ireland, where my family and friends are and where I come from, is really important.

“The play is so much about the digital age and how we protest and share stories and have it impact and influence and shape and shift things. Maybe [Vessel] was always supposed to be done digitally.”

The world now needs more artists and with growing scope for arts on digital platforms, Laura has words of encouragement.

“[Know] that no one will do the work that you do. Your voice is individual and significant. Even if it doesn’t feel like that, the world is waiting to hear your stories.”

Vessel, winner of Best Performance of the Festival, Theatre Weekly, at the Edinburgh Festival 2018, is presented by Ash 468 and Laura Wyatt O’Keeffe and streaming nightly at 8pm from now until Sunday, November 14, inclusive. Tickets are available online at applecartarts.com

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