Arts

Madame Geneva explores gin and gender in old London

Jo Egan's play Madame Geneva shines a light on how 18th century men controlled women with gin and sin

Playwright Jo Egan, whose play Madame Geneva starts tonight at the Lyric
Picture: Michael Cooper
Joanne Sweeney

THE old drinking saying that 'gin makes you sin' could be the subtext of a new play from Jo Egan.

Madame Geneva – what the spirit was initially called in the mid-1800s before its abbreviation – stars north Belfast actress Kerri Quinn as the personification of the demon drink, at a time when its grip on the women of London took a dark twist due to the intervention of a group of men who saw themselves as society's righteous reformers.

This entailed the real-life establishment of the first Magdalene Penitentiary in Whitechapel, in the East End, in 1758 as a home for 'streetwalkers'. It was the forerunner of the Magdalene homes in Ireland and the mother-and-baby homes that dotted the land in the last century.

Described as 'bawdy song and dance set in Old London', the play – directed by Cara Kelly and produced by Macha Productions, which Egan founded with Fionnuala Kennedy – runs from tonight to May 28 at the Lyric theatre in Belfast.

"It's certainly not a grim play as there are lots of humorous moments due to some of the opinions the men had, but it's definitely a thought-provoking play," Egan says.

Gin plays a major part in women’s downfall, a situation that benefits most London men as the city's prostitutes were subdued and controlled by the cheap liquor – which was introduced, interestingly enough, by the Dutch armies of William of Orange.

The play shines a light on the hypocrisy of the male reformers of the day, observing a series of conversations among men about 'fallen women' over a 70-year period; however, it's informed by the experiences of its writer, who herself had a baby in a mother-and-baby home in Cork in the 1970s.

Known from her groundbreaking community theatre, including The Wedding Community Play in 1999, Egan has organised some post-show discussions on women and prostitution in Northern Ireland today, addiction and the use of prostitution and violence against women as themes in TV and film.

:: Madame Geneva, Lyric Theatre, Belfast, May 18-28. Tickets (£10) and more information from www.lyrictheatre.co.uk

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