The story of ‘The Cook’ at Derry’s Playhouse

Thornhill College drama teacher Maeve Connelly. (2106PG32)
Thornhill College drama teacher Maeve Connelly. (2106PG32)

This week, at The Playhouse, the Derry of 1725 will come alive for local audiences as the play, The Cook, takes an in-depth look at the story of the last woman to have been burned at the stake in Derry.

Cecily Jackson was a young cook working in the home of Bishop Nicolson, and the play ‘The Cook’ penned by American professor Georgia Rhoades, is described as “an imaginative look at the year before the execution and the events which finally led Cecily to her death.”

One of the key roles in the piece is performed by Thornhill College Drama Teacher Maeve Connelly, who plays the bishop’s daughter, Catherine.

“I think I’m the most excited I’ve ever been about any role I’ve played,” says Maeve.

“I first heard about the play from local storyteller and former drama teacher Mary Murphy and straight away I knew I was interested. I’d been involved in the Tillies play and I love that idea of exploring real people and real issues. The Cook takes on so many big issues in relation to the historic role of women in Derry. I think Georgia has handled it brilliantly. It’s an excellent script.”

Maeve concedes it’s been a “huge challenge” resurrecting the customs of everyday life in the city over 300 years ago.

“We had a lot of debates around propriety and etiquette. Society was a lot more rigid and repressive and that affects even the physical way the characters hold themselves. I found the role of Catherine completely fascinating and she’s a whole window into the different relationships in the play.”

Cecily Jackson received her fate after a doomed relationship with Bishop Nicolson’s nephew and was executed at Bishop’s Gate after being convicted of petty treason. The play examines the events from the clandestine relationship right up to the horrific death of the young servant.

“Performing this in The Playhouse is particularly poignant because of the proximity to the execution place at Bishop’s Gate and of course because we’re so close to St Columb’s Cathedral which is where Bishop Nicolson’s house was,” says Maeve.

“It’s a fascinating piece of local history and one which the majority of people might be unaware of. Cecily’s story is so tragic and so far removed from the way society operates today but in that sense it’s completely compelling to watch how the story unfolds.”

Pivotal to the build-up to the death of Cecily Jackson is the class system, something which Maeve has focused on heavily in the course of rehearsals for the play.

“I took a lot of my inspiration from the book ‘The Help’ by American author Kathryn Stockett who looks at that person who steps over the line in terms of relationships with people who are considered a lesser class and everything in ‘The Cook’ is about that system.

“My character Catherine cannot help herself but love Cecily and in that sense she steps over that line and she really admires Cecily for her talents as a cook and as a person. The fact that she does step over that line of what was acceptable between the classes really fascinates me.

“Of course it would have been extremely frowned upon for the bishop’s nephew to even speak to a cook in those days so we can only imagine, and of course we know, how it was dealt with when it emerged that James and Cecily had had a relationship.”

The play takes numerous twists and turns and Catherine herself is forced to confront emotional feelings for her cousin James, but her powerful closing monologue leaves the audience in no doubt as to her true feelings about the execution of Cecily.

“It is incredibly well written, and it gets across that sense of loneliness that Catherine feels. it’s also hugely insightful as I hope the people who come along will see. It’s a great role and I’m privileged to be a part of the play,” she says.