This article contains discussion and brief descriptions of sexual violence.
Like always, this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival is host to outstanding theatrical experiences. The annual event, funded by The Arts council, runs from the 30th of September to the 17th of October and includes the play STRONGER written by Geoff Power, an Irish film writer. Produced by Gúna Nua -a registered charity, the play is an emotive story that follows a teacher (‘Jan’, played by Mary Murray) who is sexually assaulted by her student, running from the 1st to the 9th of October in the Smock Alley Theatre. The core of this festival is the Dublin city centre, it’s people, stories and past. STRONGER, based on true events, aims to shed light on the restorative justice system (RJ) in Ireland and the harrowing events that follow a sexual assault.
As part of Dublin Theatre Festival, Trinity News sat down with Geoff Power, the writer of STRONGER to discuss the play.
When asked what inspired him when writing, Power said he first became aware of the woman whom the play is based upon, when she attended a conference in Ireland covered by the Irish Times. He began thinking about “that moment where a person offended and a perpetrator met”. He believed that “if well developed” and if the “characters were fleshed out in that moment where they met”, it could make for a powerful theatrical experience. In general, he is “really happy with the way it’s turned out” and thinks “it will move people”.
“Power wanted to ‘be faithful to the essence of what she’s been through’ but ‘also ensure that it takes its own form’”.
When asked about the research process for the play, Power said it went through “various different drafts” and he focused on a “conversational” approach. He noted that he met the woman who’s story the play is based on in April 2014 and went back to “meet her again about a year later”. The play “began to take a bit of shape then”. She divulged the details of her story to him which he notes were “more extreme than the details featured in STRONGER”. “When I went back in 2015, I realised how much it had affected not just her, but other people around her”. When writing, Power wanted to “be faithful to the essence of what she’s been through” but “also ensure that it takes its own form”. “The challenges that certain research may present, is that you might think specific bits of information are essential, but if badly handled will feel too expository in nature, too preachy” he continued. “She’s an amazing woman”.
Also as part of the research process, Power consulted with various bodies. One such body was the Irish Probation Service who he credits advised him on “how restorative justice operates”. He also mentioned a friend who is a detective, who was “familiar with the procedural elements” of cases such as the one that the play is based on. Power said that she was “really helpful” and “she fact-checked certain things for [him]”. He highlightes his experience with working with prisoners as important to the research gathering. He teaches creative writing in the Midlands Prison one day a week and cited his interactions with the prisoners as crucial. “The Midlands Prison has quite a sizable sex offender population so quite a few of the people that I would teach would have been convicted of some kind of sexual offence” Power said. “Like anything you hope that you can reflect on issues or relationships, from things you’ve experienced yourself with people you’ve either lived with or grew up with, but with this particular story, there was more research that was needed” he continued.
He noted that the play deals with “a sensitive subject” and emphasised the importance of understanding the “viewpoint of somebody who’s been through that”. Another important aspect that Power highlighted was “understanding the female point of view”. For this, he sought the help of his partner, who is a writer and former barrister. “If I’m writing something she writes more than I do”. She helped him to “get that accuracy in terms of the female perspective on such a case”.
When he first began writing this play, Power had intended the story to be based in the UK. “When I began this, there hadn’t really been any cases where somebody had been through what the character Jan goes through” in Ireland. But he notes “that since has changed”. “There have been one or two people who have been through a sexually violent ordeal and have engaged with restorative justice, that has happened now”. He said this allowed the story to “find its own way, yet still be loyal and faithful to [the victim upon whom the story is based] and what she had gone through”.
Restorative justice is a relatively new practice in Ireland, having only been around since 2009. When asked about how the play portrays restorative justice in Ireland, power said that the Probation service were concerned with, “the way in which they prepare people for [a restorative justice meeting], that there was some resemblance of that in the narrative” of the play. “It’s done through certain scenes that show how difficult it is to negotiate such a meeting and certainly one where the crime is so violent”.
Speaking in more detail about how he crafted the meeting, Power highlighted the “particular sensitivities” associated with the “slow process to get that moment, where perpetrator and person offended will meet in a room”. Power said that the play looks at “why to how that can be so difficult to achieve” and the difficulty associated with “getting a meaningful outcome”. “I think the play does show how extreme” and “how carefully you’d need to prepare” for such a meeting. He highlighted the importance of ensuring both parties are “of a mind to engage fully and with empathy”. He wanted to make it clear that “it is not a prerequisite that an apology happens” because “apologies can take any form, people say sorry all the time and don’t mean it”. “It can still be a successful meeting if they’re both willing to discuss and talk openly to one another”.
“He noted that ‘face to face, with the right frame of mind, two people who for whatever reason were at the center of crime, for them to meet and to be confronted by the other, to hear what was going on in their minds at the time and afterwards, it can only be a good thing’”
When asked if he hopes to see the practice of restorative justice grow in Ireland, Power said “absolutely”. “I think it is beginning to happen,” he continued. “We obviously have community service but whether it could be an alternative to that, it still hasn’t found a place yet”. Power drew on his own experience working in prisons saying the vast majority of prisoners “haven’t heard of it”, even though “it can be instigated by them”. He noted that “face to face, with the right frame of mind, two people who for whatever reason were at the center of crime,” “for them to meet and to be confronted by the other, to hear what was going on in their minds at the time and afterwards, it can only be a good thing”. He believes these kinds of meetings can have a “lasting impact”.
In discussing the potential flaws in the restorative justice system, Power notes the need “for both people involved to be in the right frame of mind” and that “neither is being vindictive”. He highlighted the rigorous nature of the process that takes place before the meeting to “ensure that it’s conducted well and civilly, and that no one comes to further harm”. “Whether there is a flaw in the system, people are people.” He noted that they do look at moments in the play where “it looks like the meeting may not happen” but “there isn’t one single weakness in the process because of the duty of care [he] thinks the practitioners have for what they do”.
Finally, Power spoke about the difficult nature of the topics that are dealt with in the play and how these topics are a commentary on human relationships. “Over time it became more about the impact of trauma on Jan’s state of mind but also how it affected, in her case, her own marriage”. He notes that the character’s husband is “really important” to the story. He hopes that the play provokes thought for the theatre-goers. He thinks “the male perspective and the female perspective of this will differ”. He said that this was something he discussed “with [his] own partner”. “The way [Jan] behaves may surprise some, the way [her husband] behaves may surprise others but I think there’s a truth to that, which may lead to further discussions after people leave the venue”.
Sponsored also by The Department of Justice, Dublin City Council, and The Probation services, the production team have organised a webinar (7th of October at 4pm) on the RJ system to accompany the play, which includes a senior district court judge. A communal aim of STRONGER is to expand awareness of the global issue that sexual violence is now, and to make evident, “how restorative justice can respond to needs, often unmet in traditional justice procedure”, stated on Gúna Nua’s website. The Irish Restorative justice system is a newly surfaced component of our legal system, and is a keystone in the Probation services. It focuses on reducing harm caused by criminal activity, addressing the aftermath of criminal offences by giving a voice to those still suffering.