Writer and performer Sarah McDonald-Hughes talks to Frankly My Dear UK about Monkeywood Theatre’s new play TRIAL

The Trial by Monkeywood Theatre

Writer and performer Sarah McDonald-Hughes talks to Frankly My Dear UK about the inspiration behind Monkeywood Theatre’s new play TRIAL

Next week, Bolton plays host to REVEAL, a two-week festival showcasing new and original work by local and emerging theatre-makers. Bringing together a diverse mix of artists and theatre companies, the festival sees performances, experiences and events performed outside of usual theatre spaces, including schools, council buildings and online.

One of the new works performing at the festival is TRIAL, a site-specific show by award-winning Monkeywood Theatre. Performed at Bolton Council Chambers, the innovative piece explores the stories of four women, who are victims of sexual violence, and the devastating impact of never being believed.

Ahead of its three-night run, Donna Kelly of Frankly My Dear UK caught up Manchester-based writer/performer Sarah McDonald-Hughes (recent winner of a 2018 Writer’s Guild Award and the 2017 National Octagon Prize for her play SHERBET, co-written with Curtis Cole) to ask about her inspiration for the piece and why she believes it is important for these stories to be heard.

“Its different stories of women not being believed, untold stories by characters we don’t see very often represented on stage” explains McDonald-Hughes.

“It explores women being on trial, sometimes literally and sometimes metaphorically and is made up of separate stories with some verbatim court transcript which threads through the whole piece, linking it all together”.

The idea for TRIAL came to the team at Monkeywood whilst they were working on another project.

“There were some big news stories breaking at the time about rape trials and the subject matter of our other project kind of crossed over” explains McDonald-Hughes.

“We were discussing these stories a lot and that gathered steam. We found this was everywhere, these ideas of women not being believed and being on trial. We started to gather stories of women being portrayed as liars and found that there was lots of material.”

After completing some initial research and development work, the team shared their work at The Octagon and were really taken back by the response.

“We had lots of young people in the audience who seemed really energised by the subject matter and it felt quite important. In the meantime, of course, all the revelations about the awful sex abuse and assault within our own industry, as well as in Hollywood and Parliament etc. kind of erupted so it made us feel that this is the right thing to be making right now”.

To help inform the project, the team researched the piece extensively, looking back at real-life news stories, as well as seeking advice from organisations like Rape Crisis, to identify unheard stories.

Sarah McDonald-Hughes of Monkeywood Theatre“We looked at lots and lots of news stories, really piecing together details of real cases. We also worked with Rape Crisis who have given us some anonymous stories of survivors of rape and sexual assault which has really informed it. They’ve helped us to understand what services they are for women and why perhaps the rape statistics are as they are”.

McDonald-Hughes admits it has been a challenge to present these stories in a sensitive, yet engaging way.

“It’s really tricky” admits McDonald-Hughes.

“We’ve talked a lot and taken advice about treating these stories with respect. The stories are all anonymised so no-one would recognise themselves but they could be triggering for people who have been through the same thing. There are warnings about the show and we’ll be signposting people if they’ve been affected, where to get help afterwards.”

“You don’t want people to come and see it and then feel just completely depressed about the world when they leave. We’re trying to really focus on these ordinary women who have been through really difficult things and are actually quite exceptional, in the way they deal with this. I think showing those women is quite powerful anyway, telling their stories from their perspective. The show as a whole might make people angry but will hopefully energise them. I don’t think it’s a depressing watch because there is, even within this very difficult subject matter, lightness in some of the stories, some funny bits and some variation in tone. That’s an ongoing challenge.”

Another challenge has been getting into the mindset of the character. As well as writing the piece, McDonald-Hughes, alongside her fellow writers Rosina Carbone, Nisa Cole and Eve Steele, will be performing in the piece.

“It should be difficult and challenging” explains McDonald-Hughes.

“What it reveals to you – and I suppose part of the point we want to make with the show – is that this could happen to anyone. This hasn’t happened to them because of something they’ve done wrong, even though society puts that spin on it. This could be you and I think that’s what it really brings home in rehearsing the show”.

The experience will also be unique for the audience, who will be immersed in the action in Bolton Council Chamber.

“The festival REVEAL, which this is part of, is all about work taking place in non-theatre spaces so we were looking for a courtroom space and the council chamber was suggested to us” explains McDonald-Hughes.

“Although it’s not a courtroom, it’s got that feel, it’s very formal and kind of set up in that way. We’ve got the verbatim court transcripts which are played out as though this is a real court and we want the audience to feel like they are in a real court, making their own decisions about what is going on. The other plays then happen around that. Although they are stories about women being on trial and not being believed, they are not all set in the courtroom so the space kind of transforms a bit. We hope it will give a kind of added dimension in how the audience perceives them.”

McDonald-Hughes also believes important for these stories to be heard.

“What we’ve found in researching this play is that men’s voices are generally heard and generally believed. The same just can’t be said, at least through the media, for women’s voices. We don’t it to be an issue play, it’s about the stories themselves, the plays, which we’ve treated as we would any other story, but they are all told from women’s point of views. Even when rape is reported, you don’t hear from the point of view of survivors very often so hopefully, that will feel quite unusual.”

More importantly, McDonald-Hughes hopes the piece will open up a conversation about sexual assault and the devastating impact of never being believed.

“It is very difficult, we’re not offering any answers, I don’t think it’s our job to do that but we do want to open the conversation and present these stories. I think there is something about sitting in a theatre, shoulder to shoulder with other strangers, all collectively watching a piece of theatre. These voices will hopefully make people think about things in a different way than they might have before”.

TRAIL will be performed at the Bolton Council Chambers from 26 – 28 April as part of REVEAL 2018. Ticket prices start from £8