Crying in response to theatre is not an unfamiliar concept. You can cry with laughter; tears can fall in awe of something beautiful; and, of course, lament a play’s tragic end. You may even cry because some shows (particularly at the Fringe) are just far too weird for your taste. The tears shed during Unveiled, however, are of a different nature. In an exclusive two-show run, Ceara Dorman makes her audience weep as she unveils the horrors of the Magdalene Laundries, church-run institutions where “fallen women” were subject to slave-labour and physical, psychological and sexual abuse: the majority of girls totally innocent.
The intensity of Unveiled is as oppressive as Mother Ignatius, a nun depicted by Dorman in the opening scene. Dorman is a constant presence on stage, even as she transforms into another victim. Her costume changes not only mark a new story to be told, but also maintain unease and shock felt by the audience upon hearing their traumatising experiences. There is no need for musical intervals; instead, the eerie silence that accompanies Dorman’s eldest survivor haunts her like those who have already gone before her. The loss of identity endured by countless women is the key message put across by Dorman throughout the play, as she recalls only a handful of the lives ruined by the Irish institutions. Once more, we don’t get to know the names of the girls portrayed by Dorman, their anonymity only adding to the shocking realisation that we will never know how many girls suffered during this atrocity.
While we may not know their names, Dorman makes sure that we know their pain. In each role, Dorman is a stellar force. She commands her stage and task at hand without showing any signs of hesitation or weakness. She well distinguishes between the girls of the past and the present woman telling us her story. It should also be noted how well Dorman has been able to structure this drama, using one older survivor as a fixed point, holding the play together as she tells her story, as well as those of others “penitents” not alive to tell their own. As she sits at the table, her hands shaking profusely, Dorman’s frailty and eyes glazed depict a shadow of a woman, years of mistreatment and shame having taken a damaging psychological and physical toll. That said, Dorman doesn’t stick to the cliché of a damaged, vulnerable victim. Her unexpected outbursts reveal a fury felt not only by those wronged but also by Dorman herself. She goes on to convey a plethora of emotions, relentlessly going from one extreme to another. The damaging effect it had on these individuals, and to some extent on the exposed audience, leaves Unveiled not so much a show to entertain but one to educate its viewers.
As the tears roll down Dorman’s face, the burden of all these women and their lost history weighs down on her, and she wants you to feel their pain as well. She describes the mistreatment of girls by the nuns, some disfigured and punishment for being too beautiful. She recalls the suffocating heat and smell of the laundries themselves, where some girls literally worked themselves to death. Arguably the most harrowing story told by Dorman is given to us in a series of fragmented flashbacks. The story of the young girl raped whilst working under the institution, made pregnant and lately separated from her child, is a horror that worsens as her story progresses. Dorman’s questioning of the nuns, as she asks whether they were wanting to make them sinners all along, adds another layer to the corrupt nature of the Catholic Church during this period. As we see the young girl age, attempting to escape and later see her son, deep down it is clear that there is no happy ending in sight. In her final scene as she’s seen to dress her young child for a “special day”, the painful inevitably of what is to happen to her son is unbearable as the audience waits for her to she realises she will never see him again.
The harrowing nature and tone of Unveiled is consistent, and this threatens to have a damaging effect on its audience. The play never gives up on exposing the shameful nature of these institutions, so much so that the audience themselves may end up feeling guilty for the atrocities they themselves did not commit. Consequently, what is needed within Unveiled is a moment or two where the tone lightens, even for a few minutes. While humour does feel inappropriate given the content of the show, there were moments where individuals were searching for relief as a coping mechanism against the harsh realities affronting them.
Nevertheless, Unveiled is a remarkable debut by Ceara Dorman, proving not only her talent as an actress, but as a writer and director as well. Her empathy for these victims is unparalleled, and she certainly excels in her ambitions to give an identity to those who had theirs taken away from them. A shocking piece of history and theatre, Unveiled is a compelling, unflinching play that gives closure to those who suffered, and brings shame to those who allowed it to happen.
Seen at Paradise in The Vault, run now ended
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