Review: Baglady @ Royal Exchange – March 14-17

By Darren Heath

Manchester, like most cities, has its very own bag lady, or did, who could often be seen on Oxford Road, attempting to board various buses. 

She would always attempt to pass leaflets around, which, if you happened to read, gave an illogical, unintelligible account of her past. 

Maybe some of her ramblings were true, maybe within the broken reams of irrational words there was a hidden truth, buried, deep – a rage against the systems that tore her life apart.

On the street, it is easy to shut your eyes, close your ears, blank her out; or even cast a wry cursory glance over the illegible piece of paper thrust into you hand, before busily getting on your way. 

But here in the Royal Exchange we are forced to listen; to listen and try to comprehend, to have compassion. And how could we not?  

Baglady is a surreal journey into the world of a broken consciousness which, although emanates from a single isolated homeless lady, implicates a whole society. 

Frank McGuiness’ play is a long meandering dramatic monologue, and tackles the theme of child abuse – a theme deeply embedded in modern day Irish consciousness – and can be seen, in its attempts to come to terms with the past, to hold a mirror to the zeitgeist of modern Irish culture.

The performance by Joan Kempson as Baglady captivates and draws the audience into this world, into its dark territory, into a mind tortured by the past. 

Amidst all the incoherent words and actions, the tectonic shifts of consciousness that cause divergent voices to emerge, an impression of a tragic story unfurls, and the feeling of a person trying to keep it all together, to contain it, make sense of it, rises from within.

Memories creep up and divulge themselves seemingly at random: a person at a window, family, her father, being by the river, a drowning, a death; all swirl around and slowly reveal a tale of abuse and shattered identity, an identity which treads hard by the realms of insanity, of identities that are constantly slipping. 

Yet within these realms there is an attempt at healing, to reclaim the identity so brutally taken from her in childhood.  This is most noticeable during a tarot reading where she tries to restructure past events, adopting a different persona to fill in the detail.     

Kempson excels in this role as the confused Baglady, who is at times calm, at times fraught with anxiety, at times wailing her anguish and at times venting her anger.  She acts with nuance so that the performance avoids distortion. 

This is not out-and-out madness; there is an obscured logic to Baglady’s condition, albeit, paradoxically, an irrational one.  She is irrational in the sense that she is seen to be behaving irrationally, talking incoherently and constantly switching and slipping identities, but in terms of her own inner space, and her attempt to reclaim herself and understand her past, her behaviour contains its own logic. There is in the end a move towards acceptance, an exhortation to make it all stop, in the final word, “drown!”  

Of course, the play is all the more poignant since the widespread systematic abuse of children within the Irish Catholic Church was exposed. 

Baglady’s attempts to understand her past take on an extra resonance, as does her struggle to accept it, to come to terms with the events that shaped her life and broke her. 

The language is of someone desperately searching, and has its own rhythms.  There is the sense of storytelling, of exposition and dialogue between different levels of consciousness as she sets out to explain to herself her past, and watching this play one cannot help thinking of Samuel Beckett, with the detached protagonist imprisoned by the conditions of her life surrounded by a bare stage. 

Baglady was part of this year’s Irish Festival, however this play resonates universally and is a damning indictment of society’s failure to help and understand Baglady. 

How many more are there on the street that go unnoticed doomed to live their lives in isolation, deemed to be mad by the crowd that swirls around them with little or no compassion?   

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