Five women in one room on a ship for three months. That’s the setting for Jaki McCarrick’s Belfast Girls, currently making its New York premiere at Irish Repertory Theatre. The play imagines the lives of Irish women who participated in the British emigration plan called the Earl Grey Scheme, a late 1840s program which shipped “morally pure” girls from Ireland to Australia. The plan was meant to address the crisis of Irish women suffering from the Great Famine as well as the shortage of women and labor in Australia. The reality of the program’s implementation, and the ways it hurt the very women it was supposed to help, have made the Scheme into a historical controversy about the British Empire.
Belfast Girls, running through June 26 under the direction of Nicola Murphy, stars Labhaoise Magee, Aida Leventaki, Mary Mallen, Caroline Strange, and Sarah Street as five fictional takes on the historical women who tried to leave their lives in Ireland behind. The cast of Belfast Girls talks about how they connected with these characters, and the real women whose stories they represent.
What surprised you most when you first encountered Belfast Girls?
Mary Mallen: First off, the Earl Grey Scheme was news to me, so I found the foundation of the play itself shocking. Also, the women are aboard a ship on a long-haul voyage, surrounded almost entirely by other women. Slightly outside the restrictions of their deeply oppressive society, [the play] allows us to see them in a more primal and natural state than most period pieces.
Caroline Strange: I was surprised by how difficult it was to find accurate information about the Famine and the Earl Grey Scheme, and how much misinformation I had been fed through the American education system. Hopefully, this play will inspire folks to do their own research, and to start asking questions about who gets to tell the stories of the past and what actually makes it into the history books.
Labhaoise Magee: I was surprised and excited by the dynamics among the women. The ocean is this place for liberation, and regardless of their differences, they are united in this opportunity to tell the truth and make connections.
Sarah Street: I was surprised (and delighted!) by how crass the women are—it’s rare to play women who use that kind of language, particularly in a period piece. It feels so refreshingly authentic.
Aida Leventaki: The most surprising element of this play for me is its capacity to continue to unravel—I truly kept waiting for the truth to sanitize itself, but it never does.
How did you find your way into playing your characters?
Mallen: Our director Nicola’s process allowed us a week of table work and research, which was pivotal for me. Once we all presented our research, we discussed the macro and micro of what these women would have encountered on a daily basis.
Strange: Judith is Jamaican, but grew up in Larne. We thought about layering a Jamaican dialect with her Irish one, but in the end, we decided that wasn’t necessary. Tracking what everyone says about Judith in the play (as well as all the historic information on what someone like Judith would have experiences) helped me decide how she held herself in this world.
Magee: Ellen is a fierce, but quiet woman (until she’s not). I felt it was important I understood her circumstances well, but that it didn’t overly influence Ellen’s perspective. The character doesn’t benefit from hindsight the way I do, and it was important to me I didn’t play her with a false sense of critical awareness.
Street: I think it was about personalizing the things my character, Sarah Jane Wylie, has experienced. I wanted to make sure I didn’t judge her, but really understood her and why she does things, and be on her side (easier said than done in some moments).
Leventaki: There’s also a lot to be said about the research we did that doesn’t make its way onto the stage—I found many archival facts that proved these women’s stories. By the time we got into tech, I felt like we were playing specifically ‘real’ women. Many of the names mentioned in the play are unchanged, and on record from the Scheme.
How did you work as an ensemble to switch instantly from comic to intense and tragic?
Mallen: Nicola fostered an open, safe, and communicative rehearsal room. We felt safe sharing the experiences that inform our performances. These characters have been through hell. It can be painful to allow yourself to connect to that, but this group made it safe to engage with.
Strange: It is absolutely a lot of work to follow the thought patterns that enable us to switch from comedy to tragedy in the blink of an eye, but that’s the world the Belfast Girls live in. It’s taken practice, attention to detail, and trust.
Magee: Finding an authentic and cohesive sense of humor is so important for this play, as it allows the moments of intensity to be felt even deeper.
Street: I have never laughed so much in a dressing room, and I think the fun we have translates when we perform together. We trust each other implicitly, so when we go on, we can be present and listen.
Leventaki: Nicola’s faith has brought us all together. I have this image of Nicola being the captain of the ship steering, and we are all buoys hanging over the edge, keeping things afloat.
What’s important to you about this show?
Mallen: These are real women, and real stories. I feel privileged to share Hannah’s story, and all the women she represents.
Strange: I feel a great responsibility. There hasn’t been a lot of interest in these stories, and that isn’t right. All the Irish women and femmes who escaped starvation in search of a better life deserve to be honored. I also honor the Irish women I’m working with when I tell this story, not forgetting the suffering of Black Irish folks who deserve to be represented in these types of stories. [spoiler alert] Lastly, queer romance! People have always been gay, and I’m thrilled to be in a period piece that highlights a lesbian love story.
Magee: I think the play is ultimately about honoring the lives of the real women who made this journey.
What are you hoping audiences walk away with?
Mallen: I hope this play sparks conversation. After working on it, I can’t stop talking about these issues, and I’ve found a voice that is a lot less timid than it used to be. I hope the experience of this play emboldens that voice in others.
Strange: I want folks to walk away knowing there are themes in this play that are painfully relevant today. There were women and femmes fighting for basic human rights back then that we still don’t have access to now. These stories of vibrant and complicated femmes, women, and queer folks deserve to be on stage. We don’t need to wait for anyone’s approval to tell these stories.
Magee: I hope the audience, particularly women, find common ground with the characters. I think their perseverance is inspiring, and shows how strong and sustainable a female-led community can be.
Street: This play demands you engage. I would love audience members to come away with a deeper understanding of the resilience women have had to possess, both then and now, to simply survive in a world run by men.
Leventaki: All of the above. It’s hardly conducive to expect change without reflection, and if this play gives you the slightest urge to reflect on history—1800s or an hour ago—then I feel we’ve done our job.