Arts

Play inspired by drug mule Michaelle McCollum takes to Belfast stage

Jenny Lee chats to Enniskillen writer and director Kat Woods whose play Mule is inspired by the story of the 'Peru Two' – Dungannon woman Michaella McCollum and Melissa Reid from Glasgow

Michaella McCollum and Melissa Reid after their arrests for drug smuggling in Peru in 2013

IN AUGUST 2013 Dungannon woman Michaella McCollum and her Scottish friend Michelle Reid were catapulted into the international media spotlight when they were caught with cocaine worth £1.5 million at Lima airport.

McCollum and Reid initially claimed they had been forced at gunpoint into carrying the narcotics for a drugs cartel. However, they later admitted their crimes and pleaded guilty, serving time in a Peruvian prison.

The drug mules, dubbed the 'Peru two' in some parts of the media, were the inspiration for a stage play by Fermanagh playwright Kat Woods.

Mule, which won the prestigious Peggy Ramsey Award at last year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as well as being Pick of the Fringe by the Guardian and the Stage Critics' Choice, delves into a world of fake smiles, real tears, lies and guarded truths in its exploration of victimhood, media spin and personal tragedy.

London-based Woods, who studied sociology and drama at the University of Ulster, is keen to stress that her play, while looking at the consequences of drug smuggling and prison life, is not the story of Michaella McCollum and Michelle Reid.

Enniskillen playwright and director Kat Woods, whose play Mule is currently touring

"I was inspired by their story and read quite a bit about them because they were engulfed in this media frenzy whenever it broke," the playwright says. "The way the girls were portrayed in glorifying the crime was terrifying. The media focused on their hairstyles and what they were wearing – this wouldn't have happened if they were two men.

The 37-year-old, who also directs Mule, added:"I wanted my play to explore the femalisation of the drugs industry, whose cartels target white European women, and I also wanted people to examine their own humanity."

The play opens in Ibiza, where two girls, Orlaith and Shannon, are working in clubs to earn money to enjoy themselves. Soon, one has dragged the other into the seedy underlife of the clubs and the drugs trade.

Mule, without passing judgment, asks how does the seemingly innocent adventure of a summer spent in the party capital of the world spiral out of control and end up with two young women locked up in a notoriously tough South American prison?

Actresses Aoife Lennon and Edith Poor star in Kat Woods's production of Mule

The exploitation of the characters – media sensationalism, social media trolls, prison violence, coercion – and the impact of the drugs trade on the families of the perpetrators and their victims are all examined.

Dundalk actress Aoife Lennon and New Zealand-born Edith Poor play multiple roles, including prison guards, news reporters, a mourning sister and a drug dealer. Amid the sobering issues discussed in Mule, there are moments of humour, including a scene where they attempt to teach Riverdance to bemused prisoners.

The drama combines cinematic elements into the performances, with flashes of social media imagery and some occasionally distrubing imagery.

Does Woods cast the audience as a jury?

"I leave it up to the audience to come to their own conclusions. We are so quick to judge others, so I want audiences to think about what their actions would be if this were their sister. My sympathies lie with the people affected by drug smuggling, including their families. After all, you can't control what your sister does."

As drug-related incidents continue to rise within our community, Woods also hopes audiences will get a wake-up call to the effect of drugs on their own doorstep.

Actresses Aoife Lennon and Edith Poor star in Kat Woods's production of Mule

"A play like Mule is a modern parable for our times – it's a tale of what not to do. Sadly Northern Ireland's whole drug problem has been swept under the carpet as we have got bogged down by the legacy of the Troubles. There needs to be more outreach programmes to support victims and their families and more awareness on the dangers of recreational drugs," adds Woods, who is currently working on a new futuristic play, exploring cryogenics.

An associate writer for London theatre company Omnibus, Woods hopes to bring more of her work to the Northern Ireland stage and is currently in talks about making her award-winning Belfast Boy play into a six-part television series.

Based on the true story of an inspiring dancer friend who fled Belfast during the Troubles, it recounts his story and battle with his sexuality, as he speaks to a psychologist.

"My passion is giving a voice to the voiceless and I believe we don’t hear from the voice of LGBT community in Northern Ireland enough. I think it’s a really important play which also deals with mental health."

:: Mule is at the Waterfront Studio, Belfast, on May 7 as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival (cqaf.com) and Derry's Playhouse Theatre on May 8 (derryplayhouse.co.uk).

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Arts