January 22, 2003: Munro, Iron

Royal Court, a Traverse Theatre production transferring here from Edinburgh

Munro, a talented young author of perhaps three or four plays, writes here about a young woman who after fifteen years has tracked down her mother in a prison where she is serving a life sentence for the murder of her husband. There has been no contact between mother (Fay) and daughter (Josie) since Josie was ten. Mother and daughter get to know one another again, thanks partly to the kindness of the two guards, a middle-aged man and a young woman almost the same age as Josie. Josie has very few memories of her father or indeed of her first ten years of life. Fay tells her stories of when she was young, but Josie seems not to remember. As the relationship develops, Josie gets the idea of employing a female solicitor in the office of Faye’s defense attorney to mount an appeal that might set Fay free. Fay longs for the freedom of release from prison, but balks at the idea of having to go through all the details of the murder of her husband once again. In a highly charged scene toward the end of the play, Josie finally coaxes her mother to tell her what happened the night of the murder.

Setting aside the many circumstantial details, what it came down to was that Fay had been badly hurt in a quarrel with her husband, and had felt a great rage in her head; her husband had laughed at her for that, and this wounded Fay so badly that, finding a knife somehow in hand, she killed him. Josie at last sees what lies behind her mother’s sad mental condition — “I still miss him terribly,” Fay admits. But Fay vehemently tells Josie to go away and never come back, tells her, in effect, to “get a life” (as we now like to say). For it has become clear that Josie has become morbidly attached to the idea of rescuing her mother and has even proposed to quit her full-time job to devote herself “twenty-four-seven” to securing her mother’s freedom. Although for some months Fay has decided to live vicariously through her daughter’s life, she jettisons all that when she sees what she will have to go through in the course of an appeal and sees also what it will do to her daughter. The breaking off is painful and harsh but, as we under­stand, necessary.

The Royal Court Theatre, after a long and expensive rehabilitation, is still far from a congenial theatre, though the seats are better upholstered and more com­fortable than before. My ticket put me in Row H of the stalls, two rows back under the overhang of the dress circle, where acoustics are not what they might be and where it was very difficult to hear and understand soft-spoken Scottish female accents. After the interval I found an empty seat in the first row, with much improved results. This kind of play benefits from having its audience close at hand, where we can almost palpably sense the rigors and deprivations of prison life, sense the unsatisfactory lives of prison guards, who steer a perilous course between enforcing the rules and taking too much pity on inmates, and perceive the deep frustration resulting from the juxtaposing of two loved ones whom prison regulations forbid to touch one another. Munro spins out her action at seemingly a slow pace, and yet they are drawn into it ever more deeply, until we fully feel the irony of Fay’s sad position and see what prison life does to make “inmates” not only of prisoners on the inside but of those on the outside who love them still and cannot abandon them.

An interesting coincidence, that these two plays seen today turn out to be both about unexpected and unorthodox connections between women who have spent so much time in ignorance of or in detachment from the other’s existence.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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