Eva O'Connor: 'I understand what it's like to feel consumed by something'

Fringe First winner Eva O’Connor is back, exploring climate change and eating disorders

Eva O'Connor in Mustard

Eva O’Connor hasn’t missed an Edinburgh Fringe since 2010. Back then she was a student, making her first solo show. Now she’s an acclaimed theatre-maker, a writer for television and the winner of a Scotsman Fringe First for her 2019 show Mustard. “I always said I’d take an August off,” she says, half-smiling. “But after an enforced break last year, I never want to miss the Fringe again.”

This year O’Connor, from County Clare, makes a virtual return with two shows in Summerhall’s online programme: the return of Mustard, which ran for just a week in 2019, and a new three-hander, Afloat. “It’s not the same as everything being live,” she says. “But it does have that Fringe-approach buzz, I am getting excited.”

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Afloat is set in a post-apocalyptic Dublin in which the city is under water. Childhood friends Blathnaid (played by O’Connor) and Debs are living on the top floor of the Liberty Tower, the only survivors, as far as they know, remembering the city they knew and wondering if they could have done anything to avert climate catastrophe.

The show is co-written by O’Connor and Hildegard Ryan (her collaborator in theatre company Sunday’s Child, who directed Mustard) and you can expect a few surprises. This is no climate change guilt trip about recycling more plastic bags. “It came out of a debate we had in a group of friends about how much personal responsibility you have for the climate catastrophe, and how much using a keep-cup or turning off your lights actually makes any dent in the situation when so few corporations have such a massive impact.

“I was one of those people who buried my head in the sand to begin with. Through writing the play, my eyes have been opened to how urgent it is. We wanted to find a way into it that could be something a little bit fresh. I think I’m proud of this show from that point of view because we set out to say something and we have.”

Written before the pandemic, it nonetheless has some uncanny resonances with the past 18 months. “I almost wouldn’t write it now because I think nobody would want to watch a play about two girls stuck in the same room. There are lots of jokes like ‘I can’t believe I’m stuck up here with you and a Westlife album for the rest of my life’. Also, I think a lot of the reflections in it are the same ones as we’ve had through lockdown: what did our society look like? Why didn’t we do more to change it?”

The majority of O’Connor’s plays have come out of personal experience or causes she feels passionate about. Her play Overshadowed, which was later made into a series for BBC3, draws on her experience of having an eating disorder. She has written two plays, the Fringe hit My Name is Saoirse and Maz and Bricks, around the subject of abortion, and campaigned hard during the Irish referendum in 2018 in which the country voted to repeal its prohibitive abortion laws. She says she’s proud of these works: “They make me feel a bit useful, even if they go in an archive and no one ever reads them again.”

Mustard was a wildcard she decided at the last minute to take to the Fringe in 2019, a solo show in which a woman struggling to cope with a bad break-up lathers her body in mustard. O’Connor describes it, smiling, as “all my failed relationships in one”. “I just splurged it, it almost started like a long poem. Also I was really into condiments, which I found out is quite common for people with eating disorders because they have a really strong taste and really low calorie content. I ate a huge amount of mustard in my life.

“Because I did have an eating disorder, I understand what it feels like to be totally consumed by something. I think the fact that I never really say what the mustard stands for means people might say ‘I feel like that about alcohol’, ‘I feel that way about self harm’. But also it’s quite absurd and hilarious and weird, so it lifts it out of being a really dour play.”

The Fringe First Award came out of the blue. “It was amazing. I suppose to win it with that, which was so small, and such a passion project, it just felt like a really special thing. I’d never really thought about it, but it was a dream of mine because I love the Fringe so much and it has been such a formative part of my creative life. Every show I’ve ever done has started in Edinburgh. Winning a Fringe First was like, ‘Well done, you hung in there, and here’s a little certificate of excellence’.”

When the pandemic happened, she was just back from New York with Maz and Bricks, and Mustard, which had been taken under the wing of Irish new writing company Fishamble on the back of its Fringe success, was about to go on tour. “It just felt like, after ten years of endless graft, the ball was rolling. And then the pandemic came. It was really tough. I was lucky because I do work in television as well so I did have enough writing work to keep me going, but it was hard to be creative, hard to stay positive.”

Now, live theatre is making a tentative comeback in Ireland and London (where O’Connor is based). After a month’s work in Limerick, she’ll be heading back there “to watch Edinburgh on my TV. But I wish I was coming to Edinburgh.”

Afloat runs 6-29 August, and Mustard runs 16-22 August, both as part of Summerhall’s online programme. www.summerhall.co.uk

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