Meghan Tyler was playing Stella in Emma Jordan’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire when she was working on Crocodile Fever, the Northern Irish actor and writer’s searing new play that forms part of the Traverse Theatre’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe season when it opens next week. That was in May at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, with whom Crocodile Fever is being presented in association, and where both Tyler and Jordan were acclaimed for their take on Tennessee Williams’ modern classic about sanity, madness and the family.
“That was such a blast,” says Tyler. “Emma breathed new life into it, and showed that it’s still such a relevant piece of work. One of the main things I discovered is that Stella isn’t a wallflower as she’s sometimes seen to be. Why would Stanley be attracted to that? They need to butt heads a bit. It’s a play that completely engages our soul and our brain, and totally gets under your skin.”
What effect if any Tyler’s experience has on Crocodile Fever remains to be seen, but it already has one fan, at least.
“Emma Jordan’s seventeen-year-old daughter read the play,” says Tyler, “She said to me afterwards that her brain was so full of the characters, and that she couldn’t wait to see it, because most theatre bored her to tears. Her saying that really matters to me, because that’s what I want to do. I want to write things that will excite a seventeen-year-old.”
Crocodile Fever is set in late 1980s Northern Ireland against the backdrop of the Troubles. Here, two estranged sisters reunite after a decade for a high-octane charge into everyday mayhem that takes a serious turn for the weird.
“It sort of cane about when I was at home visiting my dad,” says Tyler, ‘and there was a documentary on about crocodiles. I had this idea in my head about two sisters, and one of them comes back believing their father to be dead, and the other one is trapped in the house. I banged out a first draft of the play in about three days, and it goes off on this huge kick-ass rocket-fuelled adventure. It’s very funny, very violent and very mad.”
Tyler developed Crocodile Fever at the Lyric as part of the theatre’s New Playwrights Programme, where her mentor was fellow Northern Irish émigré David Ireland. The Traverse production is being directed by the theatre’s current interim artistic director, Gareth Nicholls, who last year oversaw Ireland’s scabrously funny play, Ulster American. If Tyler’s opus sounds, superficially at least, like a mash-up of Thelma and Louise and Derry Girls, it’s probably more dangerous than both.
“This is verging a bit more on the surreal and the horrendous,” she says. “It’s a very black comedy, and I think doing it now is perfect timing for some of the things going on in the world, particularly in relation to women’s rights in Northern Ireland.
“It still feels like things there are fifteen years behind everywhere else, because the Troubles put a pause on everything. In the late 80s, Northern Ireland was in a state of social conflict and violence, and it’s important for women to rise up and tell their story.”
Tyler’s own story began in Newry, some thirty-odd miles from Belfast, where she first discovered the power of drama at school.
“The drama room felt like home,” she says. “We had a brilliant high school drama teacher, and arts subjects were really considered to be important.”
It was here Tyler began writing as well as acting, both of which she pursued at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow. Her first performed work, Nothing to be Done, was presented at the Off the Verge festival of new work.
“I never expected the writing to go very far,” says Tyler, “but Nothing to be Done was a response to Samuel Beckett saying women couldn’t do Waiting for Godot.” Tyler took the play to Edinburgh, and to the Setkani/Encounter festival in the Czech Republic, where it won the Marta award for best script, ‘representing artistic hope for the future.’
As an actress, Tyler hit the ground running as soon as she graduated, playing Ophelia in Dominic Hill’s Citizens Theatre production of Hamlet. She went on to play Abigail Williams in John Dove’s production of Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, and Alison in Ed Robson’s look at John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in Cumbernauld.
Tyler is also one of the core team that make up the Glasgow-based Blood of the Young company, whose can-do approach is doing so much to reinvigorate theatre in Scotland right now. Tyler was one of an all-female sextet in Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort of), Isobel McArthur’s audacious pop-savvy staging of Jane Austen’s classic novel, which Tyler will return to when it goes out on tour in the autumn.
Writing-wise, Tyler’s work has included The Persians at Oran Mor, and the Golden Arm Theatre Project with Blood of the Young. She has also been awarded a Channel Four Playwright’s Bursary and a New Playwrights’ Award from Playwrights Studio Scotland.
“I find I write the most when I’m acting,” says Tyler. “Even when I was at RCS, I had loads of scripts and ideas on my laptop, and one feeds the other. Working with all these incredible characters you’re playing, you take that home with you, and that opens up other things.”
Beyond Crocodile Fever, Tyler has a new play on the go, which at the moment is called Love Bites. She’s also working on a new version of Strindberg’s A Dream Play. There’s another piece due for her Channel 4 bursary, and she’s reading lots of books for a potential TV adaptation. For now, however, sisters are very much doing it for themselves.
“I think the important thing about Crocodile Fever is its feistiness, and the fight within it,” Tyler says. “I definitely hope if the audience come to see it they recognise that, and go out wanting to change the world. The best theatre always changes you a wee bit, but in a time where things can feel really hopeless at the minute, I hope people come out and go, yes, we can do it.”
Crocodile Fever, Edinburgh Festival Fringe @ Traverse Theatre, previews August 1-2, then August 4-25, various times.
The Herald, July 26th 2019