A CUP OF TEA WITH MICHAEL JOHN O'NEILL
Posted on 31 January 2023.
Posted in: Interviews with cast and creatives
We caught up with writer Michael John O'Neill to talk inspiration, artistic influences, and his first full-length play, Akedah which opens Downstairs 10 February 2023.
In a nutshell, what is your play Akedah about?
Akedah is about two sisters who had their childhoods, and the time they would have had to be sisters, stolen from them. And then suddenly they land back in each others’ lives and have to reckon with the people they’ve both become during those stolen years.
Where did the title come from?
The first title for what this became was from a very hastily put together short student play called Christ Alive! that was about a young woman having an unrecognised psychotic episode in the middle of a charismatic worship service. Then later I started writing a play I was calling Headland about two sisters, one who stayed and one who comes home to the north coast of Ireland after a time away.
The title Akedah came when I realised there was something sitting beneath these two ideas that was worth excavating. The word Akedah is a Hebrew word that means “binding” and relates to a Torah story (Genesis 22) which is told on the second day of Rosh Hashanah to underline the importance of self sacrifice and obedience in service to God. It is a story many will be familiar with even without any strong cultural link to it - the story of the binding of Isaac for sacrifice by his father Abraham. It rings a bell, doesn’t it? Father, son, something, something, knife, stop right there, here’s a sheep.
Christianity uses this story to underpin the logic of Christ’s sacrifice, but I’ve always found the terror of the original story much more distressing and impactful (maybe even because it lacks the later Christian enthusiasm for painfully detailed body horror). In a very short amount of words, in one of the oldest stories humanity decided to hand down through the ages, a father agrees to brutally kill his child. Ultimately he is stopped and the violence is ported into the sacrificial destruction of a lamb (poor wee lamb gets the rough end of the deal in this one unfortunately).
In all the religious traditions that claim this story there has been an ocean of ink spilled to try to mitigate the moral crimes of both Abraham and God in this moment - trying to rescue them from our instinctive revulsion - often interpreting the episode as more of a knowing pantomime of violence where every participant understands no one was actually going to come to harm (apart from our lamb pal).
As a dramatist it is that unresolved tension in the story and how we perceive it that attracts me. It says something about that terrible truth that the family structure is as good as being a mechanism for violence as well as for care. So, for me, that’s what Akedah means, and that’s the exegesis of the word that plays out in this story of two sisters trapped between a sprawling evangelical church complex and the wild Atlantic.
This is your first full- length play, what inspired you to write Akedah?
Two things. I grew up on the fringe of what has been termed Northern Ireland’s “Bible Belt”, which expands out from belt buckle Ballymena into a sizeable amount of devout Christian communities (sizeable even by Northern Ireland’s impressive standards for God-fearing). I’ve always been fascinated by the clash of that kind of world changing Christian zeal against the reality on the ground in NI - the reality I understand to be the endemic alienation of a country that was grimly congealed into existence in the backwash of violent British imperialism.
And the other thing that was a big inspiration was that feeling of coming home after a time away and not finding any comfort in that experience. Because of that uncanniness of everything looking the same, but still being different. Your community has probably fractured, your friends are in other places, the connection between place and meaning has fundamentally slipped. That universal experience is made specific for the characters in Akedah.
How do you think the audience is going to feel when they leave the theatre after watching?
My two-and-a-half year-old daughter is hugely into the TV movie version of Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman at the minute. At the end, when he melts, she’ll turn to me and say “is sad”. But she also wants to watch it immediately five more times, because it’s beautiful, and about play, and because that sad wee pile of clothes and snow also contains the truth that even a broken Snowman contains everything it needs to be rebuilt when the snow comes again.
I think that’s broadly what I want you to feel coming out of Akedah. A hope that destruction is not an end but a beginning.
Do you have a favourite line in the play?
Okay. I need to preface this because the line I’m thinking of is an objectively unimpressive line. I promise you there are lots of good lines in the play. Pick the type of line you like, it’ll be in there. Nice sounding poetical stuff? You’re sorted for that. Low key plot moving stuff. I’ve got you bro. But my favourite line at the minute is a computer that says “I am having trouble connecting.”
I like it because it’s part of a very small and very silly moment that is returned to in a less silly part later on; because it is deeply ironic about what is happening between the two sisters (they are also having trouble connecting); and overwhelmingly because I am almost 100% certain it’ll end up getting cut for time. Which I will feel sad about but will accept, because we can survive without it. It’s inevitable sacrifice makes me feel that much more fond of it. This is, after all, a play that wants you to think about sacrifice.
So there you go, if you’re reading this, you’re likely to be one of the blessed few to experience this doomed belter.
What play / film / TV show have you seen recently that you’ve really enjoyed, and why?
*makes expected excuse about having a young child and evenings being a wipeout*
What I did see in the cinema recently which I loved was Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun. It was the week before we started rehearsals on Akedah and I bunked off working on the script and saw a matinee in Glasgow. Didn’t know much about it going in, and when I realised Paul Mescal (Maynooth, Ireland) was playing a central belt Scottish dad I immediately got intense mangled accent anxiety. I think the characters are from West Lothian, which is where I live now. But he really nailed it. I know he gets praise for everything, but I think this particular achievement has been criminally overlooked - on a small film as well, so specific with a really subtle bit of accent work. The Oscar for that alone. Also the film absolutely destroyed me. And everyone in it gives a pitch perfect performance. I’ve definitely been on a variation of that kind of emotionally-loaded early-2000s holiday with a single parent. Triggering (but a hugely welcome cathartic triggering).
Where is the best place for you to write?
I like mixing it up. Find different environments good for different modes of writing (vomit draft through to editing through to tearing my hair out at 4 in the morning). This play was written in bedrooms/kitchens of multiple different homes (mostly Glasgow), kitchen of the flat where my mum stays in Portstewart (which is right up against the sea, she’s a lucky duck), a balcony on a perfect holiday to the Amalfi Coast not long before the lockdowns, Linlithgow Library, British Library, a cafe in Linlithgow called aran, a desk at National Theatre of Scotland, a meeting room in the Playwrights’ Studio Scotland offices, and in the quiet coach on the LNER Edinburgh - London Kings Cross service. Wrote 20 good pages on that journey. Thank you British railway workers.
Who are your playwrighting heroes?
Marina Carr, David Harrower, debbie tucker green, Lucy Prebble, Anne Washburn.
What has been your highlight as a writer so far?
Having my work published. The whole process of that, checking proofs, choosing artwork. Immensely satisfying. Playwriting is a tragedy in itself, because you’re taking an incredible amount of care and time (sometimes years) to make a thing that you know will have a vanishingly small amount of life (usually weeks) before it goes away forever. Publication feels like a lovely gift to offset that. Something that you can hold in your hands that will decay more slowly, at a tempo that seems commensurate to the effort put in. I particularly enjoyed the publication process on Akedah, because I got to use the artwork of a brilliant artist for the cover - a painter named Kate Reid - who makes work about the same landscapes where this play is set. I’ve only seen the proof, but I can’t wait to see the book itself with Kate’s ‘Quantum Moon’ right up front to kick things off.
If you could have written any play what would it have been?
*googles most successful non-musical play ever* I would like those “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two” royalties please.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
Revered-by-his-peers-but-overlooked-by-the-lever-pullers-of-power left-wing economist. Being right all the time but no one listening is a vibe I feel like I could pull off. But Mrs Hunter was spot on, I just didn’t apply myself in maths. Roads not taken, worlds unborn.
Akedah plays Downstairs from 10 February