Hunger Games, Twilight, Bridget Jones Diary, Wuthering Heights... dramas exploring the conflict between love rivals are commonplace; less so when one of the rivals is a cow. Such delightful absurdity is what lies in store for those who head to Cavan Arts Centre on Saturday night to watch Noni Stapleton’s eagerly anticipated 'Charolais’.
The one woman show follows the heavily pregnant Siobhan as she struggles to come to terms with her partner’s affection for his pedigree Charolais heifer, which also happens to be pregnant.
“Siobhan is very disgruntled about this and she begins to have this homicidal jealousy for this cow and begins to wonder how she can bump off this 'other woman’,” explains Noni with a laugh.
“There’s longing and desire in that she feels the farmer is not paying enough attention, and is a bit monosyllabic. He’s not very good at showing his feelings, but they are very much in love.
“Then there’s the farmer’s mother-in-law who would think Siobhan isn’t good enough at all for her son, so there’s conflict there.”
True to the breed’s origins, Noni (rhymes with Tony) has given her Charolais a French accent. “When the Charolais is speaking she fancies herself as a bit of a sexy French cabaret artiste, so she’s meandering around the fields with her monologues and breaking into Edith Piaf songs every now and then. She reckons she’s the best thing since sliced bread... or sliced baguette.”
Placing Noni’s accent is near impossible, and somewhat surprisingly there’s not a hint of rural colouring. You would expect a playwright who has penned such a drama to have some experience of farm life. But no.
“It’s hard to pin me down to one area,” Noni accepts in her culchieless accent, explaining her father was in the army and so the family were regularly uprooted. Born in Cork she was reared first in Clonmel, then the Curragh and then Naas, before finally settling in Dublin - none of which was within the farmgate.
So how was she inspired to create 'Charolais’ set in a midlands’ farm?
“The play started with me sitting at my mum’s kitchen counter talking to myself outloud in a flat rural midlands accent, and the first monologue poured out of me from there. Within that monologue were all the elements of the play: that Siobhan would be pregnant, that she would be jealous of this cow.
“I had a really strong sense of what kind of a woman she was. It almost felt like you could give me any topic and Siobhan could chat away about it. And what was coming out, as well as being very funny, some of it was very poignant.”
That was the jumping-off point, but knowing nowt about farming she sought out some experience.
Put in contact with a farmer in the Dublin mountains, she arrived in festival wellies, dress and leggings for a day plodding through the fields. The experience was more hands-on than she expected.
“I calved a cow. I really did,” she says pre-empting my surprise. “Yeh, the orange gloves, the whole shebang. Shoulder deep in the business end of a cow.”
The farmer had been so generous with his time that when he suggested Noni help out with the calving, she felt obliged to accept.
“He lifted up the tail and said, 'Stick your hand in there’. I remember having this feeling of - Oh Jesus I can’t not do this. I have to do this. It’s immense pressure - you’re on the coal face. You’re going oh my God there’s a living being - two of them in front of me here. I can’t mess this up. “He said, feel for the nose, it’s soft and squishy. I looked at him - 'I’ll tell you now there’s an awful lot of 'soft and squishy’ going on in here’.
She was shown how to fasten ropes to hooves, attach them to a lever and “pull like bejaysus”.
“When we pulled him out, honestly I felt like the world’s most amazing midwife,” she recalls. “I was high as a kite.”
Given the honour of naming the calf, Noni noted the tussle of unruly hair propped between his ears and settled on Tupée. It must have seemed like a good luck omen when she spotted a “perfectly formed loveheart” on the Tupée’s cheek. And so it proved: she got support from the 'Show in a Bag’ event for emerging playwrights and the Arts Council, and from there Charolais has garnered a barn-load of plaudits. In addition to prizes at both the Dublin and Edinburgh Fringe, it is now amongst ten female playwrights in the running for a prestigious New York literary award - the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. The winner will be announced later this month.
That day on the farm also opened Noni’s eyes to the inherent drama in farmlife.
“I was listening to him talk so simply and so eloquently and with such connection to the land and animals, with no sentimentality, but a true bond and connection with the land. I thought there is so much poignancy here, I was very moved by that.
“Just the way he spoke, I thought I’m having an emotional reaction to this man who is not trying to elicit anything from me, he’s just telling it like it is, and it really made me think, in terms of theatre, there’s not a lot out there that speaks to those daily life and death situations that farmers, and their families are confronted with. It’s almost like the farming communities know all about it, and rural communities know more about it, but I don’t think an urban audience realises that goes on every day.”
It also paid off in bringing an authenticity to her performance. “All of it went into the play, including how dangerous they become after they have calved. What is amazing for me is the amount of people in rural and country communities - and farmers themselves - who have said, 'Well you grew up in a farm’. So it’s a lovely sort of endorsement for me as an actor and as a director to see that I’ve captured something that would make people think that I grew up in a farm.”
Getting to perform a play she penned herself also provides a special pay-off for Noni. “There are times when I pinch myself and go - Jayney mac, I wrote that line and that 75-year-old woman in the third row just threw herself forward laughing her head off. You have those weird moments when you are completely in character and you’re in the moment but there’s also another part of your brain going holy wow! I made this - great!
As memorable as the experience was, of assisting in Tupée’s arrival, it seems Noni has matched it with the experience of putting on a solo show. “This is my first one woman show, and for my first couple of performances in The Fringe in 2014, I. Was. Sick. To. My. Stomach.
“Normally by the time rehearsals are finished, I’m excited and ready to go on, so it took a few performances just to get used to a different way of being on stage. The audience really is the other actor, so you are reacting to them.
“Now I’m at the stage where I just love performing it and it is completely in my bones.”
* Charolais comes to Cavan Townhall on Sat, February 20.