The Shedding of Skin: a poetic howl of rage
by Jack FARRAR and Hollie ENNIS
16 June 2022
“The Shedding of Skin, produced by Belfast-based Kabosh, is a poetic, multi-layered howl of rage, giving voice to the thousands of women who have suffered abuse in all corners of the world.”
More women are murdered in Northern Ireland as a result of domestic violence than anywhere else in Europe per head of capita. Whilst the darkest days of the Troubles are behind us, the idea that Northern Ireland has transcended violence is illusory — the violence has not disappeared, it has often just moved from the public domain to the private. Gender-based violence escalates in post-conflict societies like Northern Ireland for several reasons, such as the availability of legal/illegal weapons, breakdown of social and family structures, barriers to reporting violence due to paramilitary control, ethno-religious issues taking primacy over gender issues, police focus on public sphere violence, and the exacerbation of pre-existing patterns of discrimination against women and girls. This combination of factors has left us in a situation where domestic abuse accounts for nearly 20% of all crime in Northern Ireland, with an overwhelming majority of victims being women and perpetrators being men. Major work is needed in Northern Ireland to tackle the growing issue of violence against women.
The Shedding of Skin, a theatre production by Belfast-based company Kabosh, is a valuable addition to this conversation on gender-based violence. It is a dynamic and impassioned play depicting the various ways women are used as tools of war in armed conflicts throughout the globe. An exclusively female cast, under the guidance of Armagh playwright Vittoria Cafolla and Kabosh artistic director Paula McFetridge, deliver a rarely explored gynocentric depiction of conflict. When women experience sexual violence through a period of conflict, their voices frequently remain unheard as prevailing narratives are directed towards the public (read masculine) arena. In The Shedding of Skin, this expectation is subverted, as three Furies guide us between various conflict zones to be repeatedly struck by painful stories from women on the ground. With an inability to remain passive, audiences are left transfixed by the whirlwind of consuming memoirs. The Furies, inspired by the form of conventional Greek tragedy, assist in creating a piece of work epic in form and scale; Vittoria Cafolla believed this grandeur was necessary to do justice to the universal themes.
The issue of gender-based violence in conflict settings isn’t confined to Northern Ireland, and neither is the scope of this play. Audiences are cleverly transported through time and space from Northern Ireland to ancient Troy, Colombia, Bosnia, and elsewhere to hear women in these conflicts tell stories of pain, abuse, resistance, and survival. Each experience is unique, but the resonances are clear and we are awoken to the tragic universality of gender-based violence in conflict. In a post-show discussion, Vitoria Cafolla revealed how she became unsettlingly cognisant to the pervasiveness of these themes while reading accounts of women during the Trojan War, immediately noticing the similarities with present day Northern Ireland and Colombia. The play could never just be parochial and limited to the context of the Troubles in Northern Ireland; domestic and sexual violence are global phenomena that pervade every cultural and geo-political setting — the play’s poignancy spans the entire globe. We continue to see similar patterns emerge from the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, where sexual violence is being used as a military tactic, and 90% of those fleeing the country and 60% of those displaced are women, often carrying unbearable trauma.
Despite exploring such heavy subject matter, potentially triggering themes are approached with a lightness of touch that makes an effort not to cause distress, without sacrificing the cogency of the ultimate message. The emotional wellbeing of audiences has been carefully managed thanks to the dramaturgy support of Dr Lisa Fitzpatrick, a Senior Lecturer in Drama at Ulster University, who has published extensively on performance and violence. Further, the involvement of an intimacy coach, Paula O’Reilly, ensured the actors felt comfortable while performing physical depictions of rape. Disturbing material like this can be difficult for audiences to engage with, but this play is an essential piece of work and the importance of calling attention to these issues cannot be understated.
Potent in its mobilising power as a call to action, The Shedding of Skin is not merely a play about suffering, it is ultimately about survival and celebrating the resilience of the human spirit. Empowering moments of acapella singing provide relief from the trauma and drown us in a wave of defiance against continuing injustice. Audiences leave the theatre encouraged to mobilise against the brutalisation of women around the world. Such provocative, high-quality theatre has the power to inform, to inspire, and to incite action in a society currently defined by political stagnancy.
McFetridge’s rationale for showcasing a play like this becomes apparent when we appreciate recent statistics on gender-based violence against women in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK without a specific strategy to recognise and combat violence against women and girls. The Women’s Policy Group has called for a long overdue Violence against Women and Girls Strategy that recognises misogyny as a hate crime and introduces more effective sex education in schools amongst other objectives. However, without a sitting Northern Ireland Assembly, the strategy’s effectiveness is muted. Another development is the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings bill, but which fails to meet international obligations. Challenges also exist with regards to legacy and the issue of gendered violence in conflict. The introduction of the Northern Ireland (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill to the House of Commons in May attempts to slim down the definition of what is regarded as a Troubles related crime worthy of prosecution. The bill states that only “serious harm” will be included which omits any refences to rape or gendered harm.
In the absence of a functioning devolved government, along with current legislation failing to provide redress for people who suffered gender-based violence during or since the conflict, we are reminded of the importance of productions like The Shedding of Skin. The primary ambition of the play is to give voice to the voiceless and encourage other women to share their stories, such as Sam, played by Shanneen McNeice, is encouraged to tell her own story. It is meticulous in demonstrating that nobody’s experience is more or less legitimate, more or less traumatic, everybody is worth listening to.
Art is at its best when it provokes us and demands a witness. Art can be used as a weapon to challenge the status quo, it opens a creative space within which we can escape androcentric social conditioning and begin to mainstream the unheard narratives of violence in post-conflict Northern Ireland. When thinking of the political importance of theatre and art, Toni Cade Bambara has this to say: “It’s really important to think about the liberatory potential of your work, that doesn’t mean it has to be didactic. It can be achieved by who you choose to humanise, who you choose to centre, the questions you ask. Artists play a big role in asking questions and imagining freedom dreams beyond limitations… the artist’s role is to think beyond their time.” The Shedding of Skin is an important and thought-provoking piece of theatre, inviting us all to think beyond our time.
- Male or female, if you need support please contact the 24 hour Domestic and Sexual Abuse Helpline on 0808 802 1414
- Women’s Aid, information can be found on your local branch at www.womensaidni.org
- Men’s Advisory Project, www.mapni.co.uk
- Lesbian and Bisexual women, www.here875008472.wordpress.com
- LGBTGIA+, www.rainbow-project.org
- Migrant Centre NI, www.migrantcentreni.org
Interview with Paula McFetridge
“This is a play which ensures you will leave the theatre informed, empowered, and ready to take on the world.”
In an interview before the Belfast premiere with our team at Shared Future News, Paula McFetridge discussed the rationale, inspiration, and process behind The Shedding of Skin.
She shared how various seeds of inspiration for the concept of the play were planted from her previous work including partnership with academics, in particular Dr Lisa Fitzpatrick of the University of Ulster, as well as through participation in panel discussions including the British Council discussion on peacebuilding and the arts, in which a fellow panellist drew attention to the different ways in which gendered violence manifests itself within conflict. McFetridge was also encouraged by cooperation with individuals from NGO groups including the International Red Cross, which drew her attention to engagement projects mapping gendered violence in Northern Ireland. Shocking statistics of the levels of gendered violence against women in Northern Ireland also motivated McFetridge to address the legacy of gendered violence through theatre: “I came across a statistic that the Rape Crisis Centre reported in the north of Ireland in 2006 — that there were more rapes in Northern Ireland committed at gunpoint in Northern Ireland, compared with the rest of the UK and Ireland, as well as the highest with legally held guns.”
Despite the ongoing work within the field on such issues, there had yet to be a piece of theatre written on the female experience of conflict. Therefore, she, as an arts activist, felt this production could provide a model for the concept of using art for reconciliation with regards to dealing with gendered violence. It provided the perfect opportunity to apply her belief in the power of “what theatre can do that other mediums can’t”.
She revealed that her aim was to create a piece of theatre “to deal with the legacy of conflict primarily looking at whose conversations and narratives are not at the table” and in particular to create a gynocentric narrative, one that is all too often left out when the issues of conflict legacy are discussed or portrayed.
To fulfil such aims she teamed up with Vittoria Cafolla, whom she had worked with on previous projects including “Edith and Constance” and “The Raiders of the Lost Story Arc”. Then began the six-year creative process from which The Shedding of Skin emerged.
McFetridge shared how she ensured the piece was international and not a parochial narrative. This decision was grounded in her observations from touring previous plays that “it is oddly easier to reassess your own relationship with conflict and the idea of pain, grief, loss, and bigotry when you look at somebody else’s war. You look at your own experiences through a different lens and it is easier to confront it head on.”
She expressed her desire to address key theoretical concepts from feminist and gender studies within the play. Firstly, she references the private versus public dichotomy of gendered violence: “Whenever war comes out of the public domain it goes into the private domain which means gendered violence within the household increases.”
Another important concept is the hierarchy of sympathy that can occur towards victims of rape, in particular regard to those who hold agency or those who were victims of domestic rape as opposed to rape by military actors in a conflict setting.
When asked on how the stories and conflict contexts were selected McFetridge answered: “It became very apparent to us where to choose, the wars kind of chose us.” She personally wanted to involve Colombia within the narrative and that inevitably the conflict within Northern Ireland would be included. The context of female combatant narratives lent itself to examining the Balkan war and Kurdistan. The Trojan war was also selected in order to embrace the Greek Tragedy and epic style of the play.
McFetridge was clear and upfront in expressing how the play — due to its premise surrounding the difficult narrative of rape and sexual violence — was “a difficult sell” to audiences. She expressed the thought that had been taken by herself and Cafolla to package such a topic into a play without retraumatizing potential survivors who may be within the audience. Kabosh has set a recommended age of 16+ and the production carries public trigger warnings. Despite such reservations, McFetridge expressed the wish that “every time we perform it there will be somebody in that audience that will know a group or know of somebody who will benefit from hearing it. These are traumatic stories that we need to bear witness to.”
The Shedding of Skin was performed at The Playhouse, Derry; The Market Place Theatre, Armagh; and the Lyric Theatre, Belfast.
Images © Kabosh used by permission.