Airswimming is Charlotte Jones’s first play written in 1997 but only now making its US premiere at the Irish Repertory Theatre in association with Fallen Angel Theatre Company. Performed in Irish Rep’s intimate studio space the play is set in St. Dymphna’s Asylum for the Criminally Insane (St. Dymphna is the patron saint of the mentally ill in the Roman Catholic Church) and tells the story of Dora Kitson and Persephone Baker who were institutionalized for the “crime” of having children out of wedlock in the early 1920’s. In order to survive fifty years of incarceration they create their alter egos “Dorph” and “Porph” and play out their fantasies of life on the outside until their release in 1972.
The Press material states: “Airswimming is based on the true story of two woman (Miss Kitson and Miss Baker) who have been incarcerated in a hospital for the criminally insane, forgotten by their families and not released until the 1970’s”.
I think for the benefit of the playwright and the artists involved, the play should instead be clarified as “inspired” by the true story - because Jones’s script is more a creative, impressionistic pastiche of the real life Lucy Kitson and Annie Baker who were released in 1972 from St. Catherine’s Hospital for the Mentally Handicapped near Doncaster in Yorkshire. They were disowned and locked up by their families when young as “morally defective” for having illegitimate children. They were women of normal intelligence condemned for almost their entire lives to a mental institution. This 1972 article was the only information I was able to find about the incident.
Jones’s script plays fast and loose with time, location and facts but is uniquely engrossing. Jones symbolically calls the two women “Dora” (Dora is the pseudonym famously given by Sigmund Freud to a patient he diagnosed with hysteria) and “Persephone” (Persephone is imprisoned by Hades in the underworld in Greek mythology). They struggle to retain their identities and more importantly, find their voices and some kind of validation. Playwright Jones was inspired to write the play because of the dearth of substantive female roles. A Guardian article states “ She joked to friends that the women incarcerated in the asylum, hoping for news of a release, were actually Jones the actress sitting by the phone waiting for it to ring.” This multi-layered irony is not lost. Airswimming has also been compared to Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. Jones fills her script with humor and pathos and she has a gift for smart, quirky dialogue. At the onset it is clear when the story jumps back and forth in time but as the play progresses the lines (as well as reality) become increasingly blurred.
Dora/Dorph (played with bravado by a tough talking Aedin Moloney) sees herself as a soldier ready for battle and is filled with facts about remarkable women in history. Persephone/Porph (played by an ethereal and fragile looking Rachel Pickup) is younger and more traditionally feminine and she develops an obsession with Doris Day’s career and music. These two women, who ordinarily would not have been friends, take turns supporting one another and propping each other up as their inter-dependency develops and their endless imprisonment threatens to crush their spirits. The air swimming of the title is an activity they engage in to escape the drudgery of daily life. Both actors work well together and are equally adept in the comic and dramatic moments.
Director John Keating capably stages the play in the small space and keeps the pace moving but might have done a bit more in clarifying the differences between Dora and “Dorph” and Persephone and “Porph” as the characters “alter egos” do not strike one as much different from their original personas.
Costumes (no credit given), set (by Melissa Shakun), Lights (Jessica M. Burgess), and Sound (Kortney Barber) while perfectly functional could also have gone further in illuminating and clarifying character and script.
Airswimming was often funny and even touching in moments but ultimately was not as moving as one would anticipate given the subject matter. I was left with more questions than answers. There was no Dramaturgical information offered in the program, a typically welcome gift of edification for an audience especially for scripts from other countries.
Still I was glad to be enlightened to the brutal treatment of women in the mental health institutions of the UK, extraordinarily similar to the Magdalene Asylums, which also systematically incarcerated woman of “dubious morality” for years and forced them into slave labor in Ireland and other countries. The last Magdalene Laundry was only closed in 1996 and the historical injustice remains controversial to this day. I credit all the artists involved for shedding light on these atrocities and keeping the conversation going for certainly this kind of systemic exploitation continues even now in every part of the world where women are still struggling to make their voices heard.