Author Louise O’Neill’s book Asking For It looks at what it’s like to be young, rape culture and victim blaming. Told through the eyes of Emma, a teenage girl that is sexually abused at a party, it’s a stark and powerful narrative that has been adapted for the stage.
The award-winning Irish play makes its UK premiere this month at Birmingham Rep.
The story originated when Louise heard US Senator called Todd Akin was asked in an interview if he thought abortion was acceptable under any circumstances. He said no and when someone asked if it would be different if a woman was raped, he said that if it was a legitimate rape then the body has ways of shutting it down so the woman doesn’t get pregnant.
“I remember being really horrified by this and his confidence in saying something that was so clearly medically inaccurate plus socially irresponsible,” Louise explains. “I put a line about this idea of legitimate rape in my first book Only Ever Yours. Then when I was editing the book I realised it was too big an issue to just shoehorn into a narrative in that way.”
Louise decided to use this to write Asking For It. There was a high profile case in America called the Steubenville case where a young girl was raped at a party by members of the football team which was then documented on social media. Having taken place in a small town where the football team were idolised, it opened Louise up to the harsh reality of rape culture.
“I remember watching a clip of a CNN reporter who was there when the case went to trial. She said something along the lines of ‘it was a tragic day in court today, to see these young men have their promising futures ruined.’ There was no mention of the victim and her future,” Louise explains.
“It was one of the moments where the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I had heard of the term rape culture, this idea that rape and sexual violence is trivialised and normalised in our society. But this was the moment I realised exactly what rape culture is, it was the perfect embodiment of it.”
Louise then took the narrative of the case and translated the story into an Irish context. “I wanted to translate it into an Irish context and I think it did so with frightening ease. I think if I wanted to set it anywhere in the world, England, Scotland, Australia or anywhere, it sadly is a universal issue,” she said.
“For me it was important to put it into an Irish context because when I was writing it, abortion was still illegal in Ireland and that was still a very public battle that was going on. Ireland is a country that has really over the last couple of years been disentangling itself from this stranglehold that the Catholic church has had on this nation. The way in which the church and the state conspired to police women and police their sexuality.
“What I have been really struck by since it has been published is that even though it is an Irish story there is a universality to it. Rape isn’t something that only happens in Ireland, slut-shaming or victim blaming are not things that are unique to Ireland. This is a global epidemic and something women all over the world are facing.”
The Artistic Director of the Cork Everyman Theatre, Julie Kelleher, and the Director of Landmark Productions, Ann Clarke approached Louise about getting the rights to turn Asking For It into a play. “I love theatre and after literature it’s probably my number one favourite art form,” Louise said. “I knew Julie and knew that our political ideologies were pretty well aligned. I was also aware of the calibre of productions that Landmark were responsible for, so I knew I was in safe hands.”
I trusted all of the women working on this show, from Julie and Ann to the adaptor Meadhbh McHugh and director Annabelle Comyn. I felt like they’d deal with the subject matter in a way that was both authentic and real whilst also being responsible.”
In 2015 there was a movement formed in the theatre industry called #WakingTheFeminists – formed as a protest against the male-dominated lineup at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin for its 2016 centenary programme. Women’s plays weren’t being programmed and their voices weren’t being heard.
“Within this movement, it was so lovely to have created our show that was written by a woman, adapted by a woman, directed by a woman and co-produced by two women.”
Working with Ireland’s national theatre, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Louise knew it was going to be of the highest quality. “I was asked recently if I was concerned how it would translate to UK audiences. But there is such a rich tradition of Irish theatre that has been really celebrated on stages all over the world. I think what is really exciting about the adaptation for Asking For It, is that it is quite different to a lot of the other plays you might have seen.
There is such a vibrancy to it. It has been really exciting to watch this cast and to think, the next Saiorse Ronan, the next Cillian Murphy and the next Colin Farrell are on this stage. It really is the best of the best young Irish talent that have been in this production.”
It’s a contemporary play that Louise describes as having a ‘youthful energy’ to it. Louise explains: “It is a really clever, quite ingenious set design. It is basically a glass cube on stage and they use lots of multimedia and videos.
The set morphs into a bedroom, the school and the house party. It’s really clever because you can see all the different rooms where they’re smoking weed or dancing, drinking or kissing. You can see it all happening, you see all the conversations and interactions.”
What excites Louise about the show the most is the new audiences it will bring to the theatre. “I go to the theatre a lot, I’m 34 and I still feel like one of the youngest people there by about 20 years. It was really interesting this time because it was a much younger audience, there were people there in their 20s and late teens,” she said.
“I remember one school that came from a a socially deprived area were brought to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and 98% of them were experiencing their first time ever being in the theatre. What an amazing experience to see a play for the first time about people the same age as you and to have that kind of energy and vibrancy on stage. For them to think, maybe the theatre is for us, that isn’t not just for older people or people who are very cultured.”
After having two runs in Dublin and Cork, Louise has seen the show many times now ahead of its UK premiere. “Every single time I watch it I am devastated because it is just so well done,” she said. “It is so interesting at the end when I look around and see everyone.
“That is the power of theatre, a group of people in one small room that are all collectively experiencing this piece of art at the same time. There is such an incredible power in that.”
I think what I’ve always found really heartening is that I wonder what conversations these people will have on their way home, on the bus home. What memories will be brought up and what experiences might be disclosed, maybe for the first time. I think art can be a really incredible way of having what are often really difficult conversations.
I wrote the book because I wanted to start a conversation about how women are treated and how prevalent and normalised sexual violence has become in our culture. What is exciting about the play is how it might continue and expand that conversation.”
Asking For It opens at Birmingham Rep on 29 January, tickets and information can be found on their website.
Photo credit // Clare Keogh