One day last year Ruth Wilson, one of our most intelligent and mercurial actors on both stage and screen, went to Tuam in Northern Ireland to a children’s playground. In 2014, this location is where an estimated 796 bodies of babies and infants were discovered in a septic tank. 796. Pause for a moment and consider that number. “It’s depressing and awful and the fact it’s a children’s playground is very strange,” says Wilson.
“A shrine has been constructed made up of birthday cards, little kids’ bootees and teddy bears. And it’s the names of all the children, plus their ages, from six months old to four years, just names and names and names. It’s incredibly upsetting.”
Those babies died in one of several mother and baby homes across Ireland run by the Bon Secours order of nuns. For a period of more than 200 years until alarmingly recently, unmarried pregnant women and girls were incarcerated by the Catholic authorities in such homes or in the country’s infamous workhouse-style Magdalene Laundries. Their babies were taken from them and, if they survived, given up for adoption.
Wilson, most recently seen in His Dark Materials on TV and in the remarkable 24-hour play The Second Woman at the Young Vic, went to Tuam as part of her research for the forthcoming six-part BBC1 drama series The Woman in the Wall. She plays Lorna, living in a rural Irish town in 2015, prone to flashbacks and sleepwalking, having been forced to give her baby up at 15. When we speak, the actor seems haunted herself by the stories to which the part has exposed her.
“I spoke to Catherine O’Donnell who works with some of the survivors,” the 41-year-old says. “She gave me a book called The Light in the Window: it’s the perspective of a nurse or midwife hired by the nuns in one of the homes. They wouldn’t allow her to stitch the girls up after birth or give them gas and air. Girls who were heavily pregnant and about to give birth were scrubbing floors.
“In that particular place, the girls had to nurse their children for two years and then their children were taken away from them. Brutal,” she continues. “What really surprised me was the age range of people taken into these places: some were in their 40s. Once you get into the details of it you realise how wide the tentacles reached into the community and how many people it affected.”
This systematic atrocity, a stain on Ireland’s history, has been explored on screen before, in Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters in 2002 and Stephen Frears’ Philomena in 2013. The Woman in the Wall, written by London-born Irish writer Joe Murtagh, is different. “The show really dances from dark humour to thriller to crime drama to horror,” says Wilson’s co-star Daryl McCormack.
“There are elements of noir in there as well. So it’s a real mash of genres and for us the challenge was to try and straddle all of them at the same time and continue to honour the truth of the stories as well. One of the most difficult things for me was dealing with the comedy in the show, because the Magdalene Laundries were no joke.”
The 30-year-old star of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande and Bad Sisters here plays a young Dublin detective investigating the murder of a priest. “It’s my first time as a lead in a show, and for it to be on BBC1 alongside someone like Ruth is a real pinch-me moment,” he says.
His character and Wilson’s do not meet in the first episode – the only one shown to journalists – but each of them deals with a body. Lorna discovers the titular female corpse behind a portrait of Christ that she has apparently stabbed with a kitchen knife during a blackout. “Sorry Jesus,” are almost the first words we hear her speak as she pulls out the blade, only to be sprayed with water from a punctured pipe.
Black comedy is often used to underscore horror here. “And thank God for that, because it’s intense [otherwise] and you couldn’t watch six episodes of that,” says Wilson. “It’s quite quintessentially Irish in that way. Every tragedy has to have humour in it. It allowed me to find quirk with Lorna, to push the boundaries and be more creative.
“The sleepwalking scenes were actually really fun for me to do. You need that stuff along with the scenes that are really painful and moving and hard. And the scenes with the women [Magdalene survivors] feel like social realism.” One of these women, keen to recruit Lorna to their ranks, reminds her the last Magdalene Laundry closed as late as 1996: “The feckin’ Macarena was in the charts.”
“It’s very recent history,” says McCormack. “Because of the horrors it’s easy to think of the laundries as the product of Victorian times, but I would have been three when the last one was closed down.” McCormack is the son of an African American father and a white Irish mother who raised him alone in Tipperary. “If I’d been born [a decade earlier] in 1983 there would have been a realistic chance that my mum would have been one of those women. There are friends of friends from my hometown who went through the laundry system.
“I grew up under the umbrella of the Catholic Church. You have your communion, and you’ve been confirmed, both of which I’ve done myself, but I don’t know if there’s a genuine connection to the faith in my family.”
He, like Wilson, researched mainly through reading, wanting to honour survivors’ pain without making them relive it. “I did a lot of research into childhood trauma,” he says. “I looked at the psychological effects of being taken from your biological parent and adopted or given over to caregivers that don’t give much care.”
Wilson too felt a connection to the material, having been raised Catholic herself, albeit in Ashford in Kent. Her grandmother converted and her investment banker father still attends church. “It’s in me and I was brought up with it so there’s a kind of understanding of that world,” she says. “A lot of the constructions of my characters follow an arc of sin, consequence and redemption. Probably my first theatrical performance was as an altar girl, putting a robe on and carrying a candle, on show and carrying out rituals.”
She was already moving away from the church when, at 16, she started listening to a sermon instead of zoning out, and “got really furious – absolutely deep rage – because it was about abortion and female bodies”. She, too, points out that Magdalene Nurseries are very recent history, and that the Woman in the Wall’s themes chime with “what’s happened in America with Roe vs Wade being overturned, and what’s happening in Afghanistan with women’s rights being completely eradicated by the Taliban. Women are often at the heart of oppression: their bodies are considered owned by the state or religion. It’s something we have to fight against.”
One could make the case that many of Wilson’s roles feature women faced with male control, religious or otherwise: certainly His Dark Materials, definitely Mrs Wilson, the film she wrote about her devout grandmother and bigamous grandfather. Arguably, too, her first major screen role as Jane Eyre, and her Anna Christie and Hedda Gabler on stage. Even The Second Woman – in which she performed the same short scene 100 times with 100 different people, almost all of them men, many of them amateurs and all of them without any rehearsal – was a kind of navigation of power.
She considers this before giving an answer that ends our talk on an upbeat note: “A lot of those men – and I am so grateful to all of the participants because it was a great act of bravery to do that with me – wanted to come on stage and own the space, verbally or physically. It was my job to balance the power, stop them and put them in their place a bit. In fact, some of the women who came on did the same so it wasn’t completely gendered. And if someone came on being vulnerable it was my job to match them.
“But I came out of that show feeling such love. The directors of it [Nat Randall and Anna Breckon, who created the show together] said, ‘Keep looking for a connection’, and more often than not I was open with them [the co-performers], they were open with me and something special happened. I came out of it loving humans, loving theatre and loving everyone who was involved. Humans are endlessly surprising. You can never give up on a human.”
The Woman in the Wall starts on Sunday on BBC One, followed by episode two on Monday. It then continues weekly on Mondays