Sitting in a cafe on Dorset Street, Miriam Needham has her laptop out and sheets of paper spread around her.
There’s an untouched cup of tea and plate of digestive biscuits to one side. Her hair in a messy bun, she is putting some of the finishing touches to Compostela.
A one-woman show, it’s the first full-length play she’s written – and it’s down to feature in this year’s Dublin Fringe Festival.
Set in the weeks after the 2018 referendum on the Eighth Amendment, Compostela tells the story of Dawn, a self-congratulatory Repeal activist who takes on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain.
Needham, who herself campaigned for a yes vote, says she wanted to write a play that would help her come to terms with the mixed emotions and burnout she and others experienced following months of juggling activism with life.
“I hate the idea of having this piece of history [with] a media sheen over it,” Needham says.
“It’s already been happening. I don’t deny that it’s wonderful [it passed], but there are also a load of complexities,” she says.
Needham says she wrote Compostela during the end of a four-week residency at Hawk’s Well Theatre in County Sligo.
The residency gave her the pressure-free space – and financial help – she needed to devote her time to writing, she says.
“I wrote the first line of this,” she says, pointing towards the hardcover A4 notebook of her script.
“I knew there was something to explore,” she says. “The first line is: ‘I changed the world, just so you know.’”
Inspired by the Facebook statuses written by her friends after the referendum results, with activists giving credit to each other, Needham wanted to invert this humility.
“I kind of loved the idea of a young woman who’s involved in canvassing being like ‘Yeah, that was me. I did it all. You’re all welcome,’” she says.
“We meet her at this kind of high-intensity place where she feels like she’s just changed the world but I think it’s pretty obvious, you meet someone [like that] and you’re just gonna watch them crumble,” she says.
The play follows Dawn on her journey to Cape Finisterre, the final destination for many pilgrims on the Camino.
Along the way, she meets fellow pilgrims and encounters supernatural elements. Needham says the play uses “magical realism” as Dawn begins to confront the impact of the referendum campaign on her psyche.
Writing the play was a way for Needham to process the intensity of the campaign, she says.
“It’s what I needed to write about, that’s what was inside of me that I wasn’t and still fully am not ready to talk about in normal conversation,” she says.
What kind of stuff? “Just the whole referendum and … ,” Needham says, trailing off. “The whole feeling in Ireland around that time and the whole years leading up to it.”
Any reaction post-Repeal is valid she says. “If you just felt pure joy, then great. If you felt nothing, then whatever. If you felt torn, or in pain or depressed, then I don’t think there’s any right way to deal.”
Needham trails off and laughs. “It’s funny too!” she says.
And, a little later: “I think it’s important for us, for society, to be aware of the kind of trauma you can put someone through by putting their humanity up for a vote.”
“It’s violent to have this vote platformed where women or anyone with a womb gets spoken about like they’re a philosophical debate,” she says. “As if it’s not real life.”
Needham asked Donal O’Kelly to direct Compostela.
She says she’s a long-time fan of the veteran actor and playwright, who’s known for his high-energy one-man plays.
“I’ve seen him on stage for years since I was a teenager,” she says. It lit a fire when she saw Vive La in the Glens Centre in Manorhamilton, Co. Leitrim.
“I was blown away. I just couldn’t believe theatre could be like that. Because it was so alive,” she says.
O’Kelly says he accepted Needham’s offer to direct the play because of “her commitment”.
“She was so determined to do this,” he said, on the phone. “Rightly so, it’s a subject that needs to be dealt with very honestly – that whole issue of campaigning society for the better and the price one pays for it.”
“It’s something we need to grapple with and she’s using a lot of her own experience,” O’Kelly says. “What’s so impressive about it is she’s put it into a format that’s so quirky and unique.”
Needham says she’s grateful for the help she’s gotten, with friends putting her in touch with her creative team.
Dee Armstrong is the designer, Rachel Stout is the creative stage manager, Cristina Florescu is the marketing manager and Eoin Madsen is taking care of graphic design and photography.
She put a call-out for a producer last month and was put in touch with Elissavet Chatzinota.
Needham hopes that after Fringe, she can take Compostela to theatres in rural Ireland.
“So much of activism in the media is Dublin-centric and so I kind of want to connect with people in rural areas who also canvassed, did whatever, are involved with other campaigns and might connect with the play,” she says.
Compostela will get a preview show in the Hawk’s Well Theatre on 6 September before its run in the New Theatre on Essex Street 10–14 September. Full-price tickets are €15 and the concession rate is €13. Tickets for the New Theatre Preview on 10 September are €11.