Screenplay/Writer: Christian O’Reilly
Producer: Raymond Keane
Performed by: Sorcha Curley, Mark Fitzgerald, Peter Kearns, Ferdia MacAonghusa, Julie Sharkey and Paddy Slattery
Dramaturg & Disability Consultant: Peter Kearns
Set Design: Ger Clancy
Lighting Design: Sarah Jane Shiels
Costume Design: Deirdre Dwyer
Music and Sound Design: Trevor Knight
Movement Director: Rachel Parry
Voice Coach: Andrea Ainsworth
It takes a special kind of person to inspire the writing of an entire play. And only an extraordinary person would have his role in the play performed by someone who knew him and held him in the highest regard. Having seen No Magic Pill in the Civic Theatre, Tallaght on 9 October last, I know that I am not alone in my gratitude for being able to witness such a fitting celebration of Martin Naughton’s life.
Writer and playwright Christian O’Reilly has always been an important ally and friend to the Independent Living Movement. From his very first encounter with Martin Naughton twenty-seven years ago, his ambition has always been to capture Martin’s story in a way that would appeal to and educate a wider mainstream audience. His critically acclaimed film, Inside I’m Dancing (known as Rory O’Shea Was Here in the US), marked his first attempt in bringing Martin’s story and, by default, disabled people and the philosophy of Independent Living into the public consciousness. It’s a film that he is rightly proud of: the story of two young men who escape the confines of institutional living and use their freedom to screw up their own lives as they see fit. I remember seeing it in the cinema myself at the age of twenty-one, when I would’ve been clubbing and partying and making mistakes. I remember how grateful I felt that Christian had taken the time to consider the realities of what it was like to be disabled in Ireland.
In recent interviews, Christian has admitted that while he was (and still is) proud of Inside I’m Dancing, it wasn’t the story that he wanted to tell. A month before Martin passed away, Christian promised his friend that he would complete a dramatic telling of Martin’s story. This promise culminated into the production of No Magic Pill, a piece of theatre that has been twenty-six years in the making – and it shows. Each line of dialogue was carefully crafted, each scene beautifully woven together with the threads of human emotion. It’s also ground-breaking insofar as all the disabled characters are portrayed by up-and-coming disabled actors, and this performance truly showcases the talent of these actors.
No Magic Pill opens poignantly with the story of a young Martin being unwillingly sent to St. Mary’s in Baldoyle “as he is not getting any better.” Nine-year-old Martin is depicted on stage as a small puppet with splints. He has no say or control over the day-to-day mundanities of life: he is literally a puppet on a string. He wants to get better; he wants to walk. Like many young disabled people, his sense of value is equated with his physical abilities. As he gets older, however, he surprises himself: he sets up his own garage and he teaches the younger residents of St. Mary’s how to swim.
Filmmaker-turned-actor Paddy Slattery effortlessly embodies the spirit of the Martin we know and love. Slattery doesn’t just act; he pours his soul into the role. His ability to empathise with Martin’s character is very special. Outwardly, Martin is persuasive; he knows how to get what he wants. However, inside he is crumbling under the expectation that he will be some sort of saviour for his disabled peers. The ghost of Brendan is constantly haunting him, whispering to him about the new life he could have in America. It’s more accessible, there are more opportunities, he could live independently. But when the first Centre for Independent Living is funded for two years (by the EU Horizon Project), his peers realise that their independence could be whipped away in an instant.
Sorcha Curley embodies the spirit of the late Ursula Hegarty. She’s spent her life in an institution, and she’s not going back. She’s feisty, argumentative, but also afraid; this gamble that she’s taking – trying to live independently – needs to work out, or she risks spending the rest of her life in a home or, best case scenario, dependent on her partner Jimmy. She points out that Martin will be okay, but that the rest of them need the Personal Assistant Service to continue if they are to escape a fate of institutionalisation, with no choice of when to get up or go to bed. It becomes clear that they will have to fight for their freedom, as a united collective. Martin’s decisions are suddenly universally relevant: whatever he decides to do with his own life will inevitably affect Ursula’s, Dermot’s and, it is implied, the lives of disabled people across the country.
On stage, Paddy embodies this unfairness in a realistic and poignant way. He’s torn between his dreams of a life without inhibitions and a sense of duty to his disabled peers. To complicate matters, he’s fallen for his P.A. Josie, played beautifully by Julie Sharkey. She’s shy and lacking confidence, something Martin makes it his mission to remedy, just as the real Martin did for many of us throughout his lifetime. Josie doesn’t take any shit from Martin, and Sharkey and Slattery have an undeniable chemistry onstage that feeds seamlessly into their characters. Once again, as in Inside I’m Dancing, writer Christian explores the complexity of the PA/Leader relationship when Martin falls in love with Josie. Inappropriate as this may be, it reminds us of the importance of giving disabled people the permission to mess up and make mistakes, just like everybody else.
Unsurprisingly for those of us privileged to know him on a personal level, Peter Kearns as Dermot steals many of the laughs of the show. Because of his speech impairment, Dermot often isn’t taken seriously and his opinions are overlooked or dismissed. He relies on Martin to translate for him, a role that Martin tires of. Martin encourages him to use his PA to communicate, which lends Dermot his freedom. Peter was also the Disability Equality Dramaturg for the production, bringing his years of experience in lecturing in Disability Studies in St. Angela’s, Sligo to ensure that the entire cast had an equal and deep understanding of the history of disability and the social model.
Kearns cleverly plays on the mechanics of his own impairment when portraying Dermot. As he pointed out during a post-show discussion, one of the benefits of using disabled actors in this production is that they are free to explore and portray their characters as only these actors can; there’s no “cripping up” which means that more attention is paid to the characters and the world they inhabit. Ferdia MacAonghusa’s physical performances, particularly where he drags himself across the stage, acts as a physical reminder to us all of the uniqueness of the crippled body. It can also be seen as a call to action: disabled actors will no longer be silent while non-disabled actors assume our roles and sanitise the perceived “unsavoury” realities of our impairments.
No Magic Pill is so much more than a play about disability. It’s a play that explores the sacrifices required by those involved in activism. I found myself wondering: to what extent did Martin sacrifice his own happiness to secure a better quality of life for the better of the collective? Was he frightened? Lonely? Bitter? Martin was far from a saint, but he certainly was an aspirational human being who wanted to make the world more accessible for himself and his peers. Without him and the others who came together to establish the first Center for Independent Living, many of us would be living in institutions or in the back rooms of our parents’ houses.
No Magic Pill has set an exciting precedence for future productions about disabled characters in Ireland. Seeing the powerful performances by the disabled actors should lead producers and casting directors to question why, historically, disabled actors have not been encouraged to assume acting roles. As Selina Bonnie, Independent Living Movement Ireland’s Vice Chairperson commented, this production has proven that with thought, awareness training and innovative set design, barriers that often prevent disabled actors from availing of acting opportunities can be removed.
I am so grateful that Christian O’Reilly persevered in his mission to bring this heartwarming story into the public consciousness. It certainly gives me hope as a writer that one day I, too, will write a story that represents the reality of living as a disabled person. Thank you to Christian, to the producers and cast for bringing Martin’s spirit back to life. It was such a timely and fitting tribute to a remarkable man, activist and friend, whose sixth anniversary we remember on 13 October. I have no doubt that everyone involved in this unique and memorable production has made our old friend proud.