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Playwright marks Abbey debut despite cancer diagnosis

“When I heard the first laugh from the audience… it was just such a joy,” playwright Hilary Fannin says.

“I just thought, they get it, they get what I was trying to say.”

It is Friday morning and Ms Fannin is talking to me in the Abbey Theatre just 12 hours after opening night of her new play Children of the Sun.

Produced by Rough Magic Theatre company, which is celebrating its 40th birthday this year, this play marks many milestones for Ms Fannin.

She was in the middle of writing and developing the play last September when she was diagnosed with cancer.

In fact it was a double diagnosis – ovarian and lymphoma.

Ms Fannin was reeling from this horrendous news, but quickly came to realise that she had committed to this play and she wanted to keep going.

“I wanted to see if there was a way that I could work on the show while undergoing cancer treatment,” she says.

After many conversations with her oncologists and the medical team, she felt she was going to be able to negotiate this tough challenge.

The opportunity to stage a play on the Abbey Theatre national stage was a life-long ambition and she wanted to see it through, if she could.

Six months later, after five rounds of chemotherapy, Ms Fannin’s play was ready for the Abbey stage.

Playwright Hilary Finnan at the Abbey Theatre

When I ask her why she wanted to carry on writing it in the face of this difficult situation, she simply said that when she was 20 years of age, she had presented herself at the Abbey box office to ask them how she could become an actress.

She laughs now at how naïve she was back then but it is a revealing moment.

“I didn’t know how to do it. I thought places like the Abbey, these institutions weren’t for people like me then,” she notes.

“I didn’t go to college, my family wasn’t connected with this world so I just didn’t know.”

Having been advised that she should “write to management”, she took things into her own hands and pursued an acting career.

Going to work as an actress, collaborating with talent such as Tom McIntyre, Michael Harding and David Bolger, she said that she slowly realised that the writer was always at the heart of the storytelling process.

Having always been drawn to writing, she went on to join The Irish Times as a TV reviewer and then subsequently as a columnist.

While her work was always marked by its honesty and bluntness, she always mixed a healthy dollop of humour into her pieces too and this style led her to creating her own original scripts.

While playing the character Pamela (the uppity one in RTÉ sitcom Upwardly Mobile) in the late 1990s, her play Mackerel Sky was produced in Garter Lane Arts Centre in Waterford.

Taking a quick look at its synopsis, you can see that Ms Fannin has always been a writer with a swagger.

With a gun-toting granny, a dyed-blonde ex-showband singing mother and a daughter grappling with faith, Mackerel Sky is a madcap account of a day in the life of a family.

Programmes for Children of the Sun, running at the Abbey Theatre

Roll forward and today, the bright eyed, vivacious and bald-ish woman sitting in front of me has clearly been energised by the whole process of bringing her new play Children of the Sun to the national theatre stage. At times she wells up during our conversation.

The play is a radical adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s classic 1905 comedy of the same name, where we meet a wealthy family in their beautiful but rundown estate.

They entertain themselves with neighbours, servants and friends but just outside their boundaries, unseeing, chaos looms.

She explores the idea of time. Is there a version of our lives where we made all the right decisions, and a different “us” could exist somewhere?

For Ms Fannin, this last six months have been a whirlwind.

She described her chemotherapy as “the bags of juice” she gets, and as we talk, she has finished round five and is due for round six next week.

However, she is determined to make the point, that she believes that her diagnosis and treatment was manageable which was why she could complete the play. She is very keen to make that point clear.

Not everyone’s treatment is the same, nor are the effects on everyone similar.

Finally, Ms Fannin ends by saying that her overwhelming reaction to her unique experience is one of gratitude.

She feels grateful for her family, for her medical support and for the team that surrounded her at Rough Magic and the Abbey Theatre, describing it as a new family.

She made it to her opening night with her family and friends and just before round six.

Children of the Sun, directed by Lynne Parker, runs in the Abbey Theatre until 11 May.


Read more: Some like it hot: a classic Russian play gets the Rough Magic touch



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