Ask Too Much Of Me opens in the national theatre soon. Written by Dylan Coburn Gray, directed by Veronica Coburn and featuring a cast of 16 young actors drawn from youth theatres across the country, it confronts the impact of the 2018 abortion referendum on a group of young people living on the margins of society.
Pausing to chat between long rehearsal sessions, Coburn Gray explains the story of the play: “They’re squatting in some unspecified location in the city centre, and it’s about their lives, and how their lives mirror the political change that’s going on, and how you can find the big political moments that no one person was responsible for in the tiny moments that they go through every day.”
The nature of the referendum, he says, lent itself easily to a play written for an ensemble cast. In one key scene within the play, a politically active character gives a speech listing those the young people are grateful to and those they’re not: “those figureheads who were tweeted about or briefly viral, the Simon Harrises, for finally deciding to get on board after 30 years of individuals dragging the issue into the public eye”. The referendum was won through small-scale battles fought by individuals, and the nature of a National Youth Theatre production – which aims to spotlight all of the young people involved, rather than focusing on a central character – highlights that reality.
Coburn Gray would hesitate, he says, to try and tell “the” story of the referendum. His writing makes no claim to universality. He was drawn, though, to tell a story of that time through the eyes of teenagers, because the experience of being on the brink of adulthood seemed akin to that of being an activist in 2018. His own feeling in the lead-up to the referendum, he says, was often one of powerlessness. “However much you were doing, however much you could do,” he says, it seemed that “you should be doing more. Fundamentally this was the really scary vote, the really divisive vote, and no matter how much you did it wasn’t going to be enough. And I think teenagers as well really wrestle with that feeling of powerlessness, because I think they’re as smart as they’re ever going to be by the time they’re 16. But you don’t have your adult coping skills, or your adult robustness, or your adult agency or autonomy, and that’s a really scary place to be.” The actors involved in Ask Too Much Of Me would largely have been under voting age at the time of the referendum, he says, “but that climate really must have gotten into their bones.”
LGBT+ people too have often been made to feel powerless, and it is no surprise that their stories feature in the production. In the referendum campaigns, Coburn Gray says, “Voice and choice were bound up.” Arguments often centred on “who gets to be counted as credible, and those were all issues that applied to young people and queer people more than others in certain senses – the right to have your experience counted as valid or intelligible.” Writing about queer youth in this political context and in the context of a squat, he says, made particular sense but brought with it a particular set of challenges: “Another unavoidable subject is the fact that queer young people sometimes don’t have welcoming homes, and so in that sense alternative models of family and alternative models of community have a particular charge for people who were more or less forcibly ejected from the way things normally work.” Handling such dark subject matter while working with young, queer actors is difficult, he admits, because “You don’t want to hand all of the queer young people you’re working with really grim, horrible storylines that bear witness to the things that happened to some of their peers.” But another project, he says, “talked about how sometimes depicting joy is actually the best way of articulating the stakes of dysfunction, because it’s what we lose” – so, in Ask Too Much Of Me, he set out to do just that.
The play’s characters “have found a thing that’s briefly wonderful for them, where they can look after one another and be family to each other, and it’s largely left to reverse engineer why they’re not getting it elsewhere.”
The actors behind these characters, it seems, certainly found joy in the production. “NYT has been the one place I feel truly myself outside of my own home. The people there are bursting with creativity and love and the (way too) few weeks that we’ve had have been some of the best times of my life,” says Sammy Cahn of Cabinteely Youth Theatre. “As someone who has only recently found their confidence and comfort in their own shoes,” says Daniel Madden of Monaghan Youth Theatre, “the feeling of belonging that can be found in NYT is phenomenal.” And for Daniel Penrose of Backstage Youth Theatre, Co Longford, “NYT is a chance to make a great piece of theatre, meet amazing and talented people and have some craic in the process.”
Of course, Coburn Gray says, “it would be untruthful to do a show about politics in which there’s no disagreement or divisiveness or destructive behaviour, because I think destructive behaviour is in many ways the really interesting thing.” The play’s characters mirror the diversity that can be seen in the real Ireland of today, and that made 2018 such a difficult year: “We’ve got masculine young men in this play who rub some of the feminists up the wrong way and we’ve got queer young people who have very overtly queer politics, which I think some of their peers whose vibe is more ‘don’t rock the boat’ struggle with.” The play has no one central conflict. As Coburn Gray puts it, “The big conflict is kind of offstage; it’s the thing where we know the outcome, so as huge as it is, the referendum is kind of the B Plot. But I think it’s that really intuitive definition of tragedy, which is that it’s good against good. The really interesting fights aren’t the ones where someone’s right and someone’s wrong; the really interesting fights are where everybody just wants to feel okay, but your feeling okay is predicated on my not doing so, and one person’s version of safe makes someone else unsafe.”
For the play’s characters, reliant as they are on a newfound and fragile community, the personal cost of involvement in a fraught political landscape may become too much to bear. Faced with personal anxieties, conflicts within their found family and the omnipresent shocking imagery of the No campaign, these already vulnerable young people find themselves in a state of increasing vulnerability. “As wonderful as the outcome was,” Coburn Gray says, “I think ambivalence about everything it cost to get there is not an unhealthy or irrational response. You know, I think with most really huge events a certain amount of ambivalence is healthy.” The play is titled Ask Too Much Of Me, he says, because it deals with “the impossible asks, sometimes, of our ideals, or what we wish we could do for one another but can’t.”
As part of a recent photoshoot, Coburn Gray says, the cast were told to chalk up their favourite lines from the play on the theatre walls. Two lines proved popular with LGBT+ cast members. The first, “Being a big fucking queen = revolutionary,” shows off all that queer youth can achieve by living their identities flagrantly. But the second, “Everything hurts less here,” shows the vulnerability of these same revolutionaries. For those who have lived through rejection, discrimination and abuse, the happiness discovered with a found family of peers is a precious thing – and to get involved in a fight for political change is to endanger that happiness. Sometimes ideals demand too much. Ask Too Much Of Me promises to be a powerful testament to that truth, and to the bravery of those young people who had to navigate last year’s demands.
Ask Too Much Of Me runs on the Peacock Stage at The Abbey Theatre from August 19-24.