Rona Munro is snowed in. Laid low in the Borders, the writer of works ranging from the James Plays trilogy for the National Theatre of Scotland, Ladybird Ladybird for Ken Loach, and Dr Who for pretty much everyone is talking about the new production of her 1990 play, Bold Girls, which opens at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow this week. Beyond all that, but very much on her doorstep, Munro reckons a foot’s worth of snow fell overnight.
“It’s pretty spectacular,” she says. “Everyone’s got the feeling that something apocalyptic just happened, but in a good way, because everyone’s talking to each other.”
As an illustration of how solidarity can be born from adversity, it embodies both Munro’s own sense of community spirit, and the sort of grassroots collectivism she channelled into Bold Girls.
Set in Belfast during the Northern Irish Troubles, Munro’s play focuses on three women, whose husbands are either in prison or have been killed in the crossfire of the conflict. When a troubled youngster called Deirdre lands on their doorstep in search of some kind of truth, an already fragile day-to-day domestic peace is disrupted by her presence. Twenty-eight years since writing it, Munro recognises how things have changed on several levels.
“It’s kind of odd,” she says. “A bit of me doesn’t even remember who I was when I wrote it. It’s also odd looking at it now, because it’s looking at a piece of history that happened in my lifetime.”
When Bold Girls first appeared, it was something of a rarity, in that it humanised the still ongoing situation in Northern Ireland without polemic. Originally commissioned by 7:84 Scotland during Citz stalwart David Hayman’s time in charge of the politically charged company. Lynne Parker, co-founder of the Dublin-based Rough Magic company, directed. The show opened at Cumbernauld Theatre in September 1990, toured, and was quickly picked up for a new production at Hampstead Theatre, before traveling to Belfast itself.
“David wanted to commission someone to write something about women in Ireland,” Munro remembers. The brief was that wide, and because it was going to be for 7:84, I think everyone expected me to study the history of all that, and to present it as some kind of drama documentary.
“While I was researching it, I was over in Belfast, working with the Paines Plough company doing drama workshops in West Belfast. I was staying with friends there, and it was while I was staying with them I realised that I didn’t want to do a play about 200 years of women’s experience in Ireland. There were all these things happening around me, and listening to these women, there was something so alive about their day to day experiences of living in Ireland at that time.”
In this way, Munro was made acutely aware of the effect the Troubles was having on the women. She saw too that Deirdre’s generation was particularly disenfranchised.
“One of the things not being reported at the time was how young people were being affected, not just by the war that was going on, but by the huge level of unemployment as well. There was no access to any kinds of social services, people were living in this extreme poverty, and young people in particular were living in this wasteland.”
Dramatising what was happening in such a volatile community was one thing, but taking the play to a still divided Belfast was potentially asking for trouble.
“It had a mixed response,” says Munro. “The women were fine with it, but the men who came to see it on the whole were a bit put out. To talk about allegiance to one side of the war or another in a play in that political climate was quite rare, I think, but at that time, no-one was prepared to stand up for the rights of these people apart from the IRA. There was absolutely no-one else on these people’s side. At the same time, to say anything critical of certain situations was not welcome.”
Whether regarded as brave or foolhardy, it was something Munro felt she had to say.
“I was at an age and a stage in my writing career that I wanted to do and say what matters. Some of the consequences of that were a bit of a surprise, especially when the play was put on the school curriculum. There were some responses saying in very robust terms that it wasn’t welcome.”
Bold Girls arrived at a crucial time in the history of female self-determination. Throughout the 1980s, women’s voices came increasingly to the fore in political struggle, be it through those manning the barricades where nuclear weapons were stored at Greenham and Faslane, or else forming support groups during the Miner’s Strike as their men went to war against the British state. While receiving less recognition, something similar was going on among the women of West Belfast.
“It was a time when women’s experiences in all political struggles was seen as support workers. Only in subsequent decades has that changed and the importance of women’s contributions been recognised in terms of giving those political struggles a longevity. What happens when communities find themselves in extreme situations, whether that’s war or poverty, there’s a tendency for male and female roles to be reversed.”
Although she had been working as a professional playwright for a decade prior to Bold Girls, the play marked something of a turning point for the Aberdeen-born writer.
“I think it was the first play where I felt like I knew what I was doing,” she says. “It felt like a solid piece of work, and was the one that broke through in as much as it allowed me to establish myself as a working playwright.”
Munro likens the solidity of Bold Girls to her prison set drama, Iron, which appeared a decade later.
“What both plays have in common is that they’re based on actual women’s stories, and are simple stories well told. That’s about craft, and about learning how to tell those stories. I’m a slow learner, but you’ve got to practice where you can, and you always want to push yourself to try things. It feels like cheating if you don’t.”
The world has changed since Bold Girls first appeared. The Troubles are no longer taboo in drama, and Munro no longer attracts any objections to the play.
“That’s partly because I’m not a very public writer. I don’t do Twitter or Facebook, and I don’t know how some of my colleagues have the guts to have people tell you what they think of your work in that way. But attitudes have changed as well. Even if some people still do have sectarian views, it’s not acceptable to voice them anymore.”
While Richard Baron’s new look at Bold Girls promises to be much more than a period piece, Munro can’t help but look back at the original 1990 production with a fondness that comes from a very personal place.
“It’s the only play of mine that my son hasn’t seen,” she says. “Except, he has, but he was only five weeks old at the time. I remember breast-feeding him in the rehearsal room, and he was obviously very popular there, but I’m really looking forward to seeing it with him all these years on.”
Like the snow outside her door, this brings a very real sense of community to a play that stands up for women beyond its original context.
“It’s the fact that it’s a story about women’s experience,” says Munro, “and in a way the political background of the play is not as important as the fact that what these four women are going through is universal.”
Bold Girls, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, January 24-February 10.
The Herald, January 23rd 2018