Night Shift, written by Irish Traveller playwright and activist Rosaleen McDonagh and directed by actor Thomas Connors, is a poignant depiction of inter-ethnic relationships as seen through the lens of an Irish Traveller woman.
Performed by an expertly chosen cast, this subversive contemporary drama presents a story highlighting the cultural clashes that arise between Noreen and her Polish partner Piotr.
Rosaleen McDonagh is no stranger to depicting societal issues in her pieces, from domestic violence to racism, as seen in her 2021 play Walls and Windows. Her script for Night Shift brings that same unsettling authenticity to the stripped-back stage of The Mick Lally Theatre.
In this pocket of thespian talent, the audience was presented with a human narrative where love, cruelty and humour came unassumingly together to give a voice to the Irish Traveller experience.
This slice-of-life production begins restlessly with Noreen (Christine Collins) and Piotr (Thomas Connors) waking up next to each other in his bed. Noreen is frantic. She has overslept and is on the receiving end of many missed calls from her mother (Mary McDonagh).
The scene introduces the audience to the primary source of tension between Noreen and Piotr—the secrecy of their relationship. Piotr doesn’t understand why Noreen can’t tell her mother about their relationship. They are adults and have known each other for eight years, working night shifts together at the hotel.
Noreen explains how her mother and her family wouldn’t understand her dating outside of the community. She fears this will bring shame to her family. Here we are intimately acquainted with the tug of war between society’s expectations and that of Noreen’s own family. This puts a strain on their relationship, as she leaves Piotr on the bed in a flurry to catch up with her mother.
Noreen’s mother was sat in the center of the stage at the kitchen table clutching her handbag with her shoulders drawn as she recounted the series of events which threw her family into a tumultuous reign of despair. Through gasps from the audience, we learn of Noreen’s abusive ex-husband and the injuries she would suffer at his hands after they got married.
This monologue by Noreen’s mother reaches a harrowing climax when she details how this abuse had led to Noreen’s hospitalisation. She was completely unrecognisable. Noreen’s father, upon seeing Noreen in the hospital, and believing she wouldn’t survive, sought out Noreen’s ex-husband and killed him in a fit of blinding rage.
While Noreen’s mother tells this, she holds onto a picture of her husband which was set on the kitchen table. Clutching the frame as she says, “They think we are a simple people, but we have such complicated lives.”
This gut-wrenching tale on the realities of domestic violence was expertly delivered with the audience hanging on to each distressing detail. Subsequent monologues led by Noreen and Piotr delved deeper into the issues of violence, racism and the struggle to conform to societal expectations.
Noreen shares her experience in the aftermath of her abusive relationship. How people within her community would talk down on her, never to her face, but she would always find out through family. Noreen also spoke of her guilt for the unending shame she felt to have put upon her family because of her past relationship.
Meanwhile, Piotr expressed how he does not understand Noreen, or what it means to be a Traveller. He spoke fondly of their picnic dates hidden away in the garden, but he wanted more. To hold hands in public or watch a film in the cinema; activities Noreen was vehemently against for fear they would be seen and talked about.
The audience is met with unlikely moments of humour between the ensemble when they are pulled together from their individual monologues. Noreen’s mother shares with her daughter that she has cancer. To distract Noreen from this revelation she pulls a positive pregnancy test from her handbag and confronts her with it from which a humorous row ensues. These moments of incredulous banter, break up the grave undertones of the production, offering the audience a multifarious view into an under-documented female experience.
One of the most impactful moments of the play arises when Noreen powerfully expresses that her and Piotr’s unborn child is a Traveller. She condemns him for participating in racist conversations about Travellers with his colleagues and in a passionate outburst says that the next time Piotr laughs at those remarks, he should realise that they are talking about his own child. This argument leaves their relationship in an uncertain place. Piotr walked off stage which left Noreen distinctly alone.
The production closes precariously with much unresolved between the pair, leaving the audience with a deliberate sense of unease that was not unwelcome. Night Shift is a raw display of performance activism that is frank in its portrayal of the struggles experienced within the Irish Traveller community.
Rosaleen McDonagh was in the audience on the closing night and beamed at the cast as they gave their final bows. She eagerly took a picture with the cast and crew while the audience stood for applause and cheers that resonated throughout the theatre.