The singer looks at her life and at the wider Irish society and how it’s changed through the new show, created with Brokentalkers, Valgeir Sigurdsson and Mongoose.
THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE of musician and performer Mary Coughlan is being explored in a new show that launches this month.
Coughlan, a longtime performer and one of Ireland’s best-loved singers, has teamed up with the theatre group Brokentalkers, musician Valgeir Sigurdsson and band Mongoose for the collaboration, which is titled Woman Undone.
Woman Undone is described as “a re-imagining” of Coughlan’s early life, and fuses theatre, dance and music. It explores dark themes like abuse and redemption, telling the story of how Coughlan experienced and survived physical and sexual abuse, addiction and mental illness. It looks, too, at how her discovery of art and music was instrumental in helping her to overcome trauma.
Mary Coughlan first emerged in Ireland’s music scene in 1980 with her album Tired and Emotional. Since then, she’s gone on to release another 14 albums, never stopping exploring her life and the world around her while using her incredible voice to tell some beautiful and harrowing stories.
Living in the public eye has meant that people followed the highs and lows of her personal life, but with Woman Undone she’s telling her own story.
A story of womanhood
She has long explored what it means to be a woman in Ireland, particularly when women’s lives and sexuality could fall foul of social constraints and judgement.
In Woman Undone, she’s taking her story and not just telling it, but telling the story of Ireland too. Coughlan approached Gary Keegan and Feidlim Cannon of Brokentalkers, an Irish theatre group, after seeing one of their shows two years ago.
Coughlan has never been a woman to stay silent. She has long been outspoken about the need to treat women in Irish society better, and half-jokes that she has “always been on the wrong side until recently”, meaning the divorce, same-sex marriage and abortion referendums. She has watched as society has caught up with her.
Recently, she had begun feeling a bit stuck in her life, and felt an urge to shake things up a bit.
“I felt with my own personal life making mistakes I’d made before,” she explains. “Some feelings that were coming up again and again and again. I was being triggered by a lot of things that were going on.”
By triggered, she means that serious and traumatic events happening in the world at large were bringing up difficult emotions for her. She went back to counselling, something that has been her rock over the decades, to help her process what was going on.
It was being back with the therapist Ivor Browne’s practice that the process began that led to Woman Undone. She says that she’d told herself over the past few years “just fuck off Mary, stop moaning – what happened to you wasn’t as bad as xyx”. Time and time again, she’d hear distressing and horrific stories. It made her reflect on what she’d been through and what people go through.
Coughlan had already made a start on the idea of a theatre piece based on her life when she met Brokentalkers, explains Gary Keegan. They weren’t interested in your typical one-woman show – and neither was Mary Coughlan.
The creative process was pretty straightforward, he says. “For the three of us to become collaborators, it was pretty much letting Mary talk, which she’s not afraid to do.” There was a lot of talking and a lot of listening.
“Mary just talked and talked and we listened and out of that Feidlim and I went away for weeks on end just to sift through the resources that Mary had given to us and try to figure out what would be a compelling story to tell rather than only relating to one individual,” he says.
They realised the story was about Coughlan, but was also about womanhood “and the relationship between women and the world”. “We set about trying to tell a story that was inspired by Mary’s experience and her spirit, but at the same time to talk about wider issues and wider stories,” says Keegan.
Coughlan is known for being an outspoken musician, but Keegan points out that before all of this “she started off as a vulnerable child and her experiences, while they were horrific and extreme, it wasn’t something that just happened to Mary – it’s something that happens to children, to vulnerable people every day.”
For Brokentalkers, telling Coughlan’s story meant also being able to look at Ireland’s collective society. They looked at trauma and addiction, at Mary’s relationship with addiction and addictive behaviour, and how many of us can relate to this.
“Some people turn to food, some people turn to alcohol,” says Keegan. “It’s a means of gratifying yourself, and silencing, shutting down the demons and the bad memories. These are all things that most people can relate to – that’s why it was very easy for us to look at Mary’s story and say that’s a story of everybody really. We all feel pain, we all deal with it differently.”
‘Holy mother of Jesus, this is amazing’
Coughlan says that it’s not new to her to tell her story publicly. She has written a book, Bloody Mary, but didn’t want to just do readings based on these writings.
She knew people were interested in her story, but couldn’t quite figure out how to tell it the right way. But when she saw the Brokentalkers show, she was struck with inspiration: these were the guys who could do it.
“I went to the lads’ show and said ‘holy mother of Jesus, this is so amazing – if I could do something like that with [my]story’,” she recalls. “But it has just gotten away from us on so many levels. It has gotten bigger and bigger and bigger.”
There are male characters and female characters in Woman Undone, but there is a fluidity to the gender of the performers. “The men are represented by the women and I suppose all areas of life – there’s a soldier, a father character, a priest character, a man who is sometimes the husband, the boyfriend, the cast-aside the lover.”
“What we are trying to do is make something beautiful out of it,” she says of the dark topics the work explores.
She’s been sober now for 24 years, but sometimes feels a little ashamed to say she’s still in therapy. And yet, when she speaks about it it’s clear what positivity therapy brings to her life, and how it has changed her.
“I have to know why I was the way I was,” she says.
At 62, she’s taking the chance to explore not just her own existence, but her life in relation to Ireland and the wider world. It’s a chance to tell her story, her way, and with the support of creative minds she has sparked with.
As we talk, it’s clear she’s happy and energised by working with Brokentalkers. “I’m so happy I met the guys,” she says as we say goodbye and they go back to rehearse again – creative spirits on the same wavelength.
Woman Undone will premiere at Project Arts Centre with performances 17-24 November (preview 16 November) and then at Mermaid Arts Centre Bray 29 November.