Brick by brick
The Woman in the Wall star and executive producer Ruth Wilson joins creator and writer Joe Murtagh to explain how the BBC/Showtime “gothic mystery” puts the spotlight on a dark period of Irish history, revealing surprising character inspirations and the art of sleepwalking on screen.
What would you do if you woke up one morning after a particularly heavy night in the local pub and discovered a corpse in your home, with no memory of whether you were somehow involved in the death?
That’s the situation facing Ruth Wilson’s character in new BBC/Showtime drama The Woman in the Wall, the first TV project from creator and writer Joe Murtagh (Calm with Horses).
However, there’s much more to the six-parter than that tantalising setup, with the series putting the spotlight on real-life scandal and tragedy in Ireland through the lens of a gothic mystery.
Key to the plot are Ireland’s infamous Magdalene Laundries, the largely Catholic-run institutions that first emerged in the 18th century and continued to operate until as recently as the 1990s. While the laundries were ostensibly set up to house so-called ‘fallen’ women, those inside were made to carry out unpaid labour, with thousands of women who had committed no crimes effectively imprisoned indefinitely – and many former inmates reported shocking cases of sexual, physical and psychological abuse.
The Magdalene Laundries gained international notoriety at the end of the 20th century, after the discovery of a mass grave holding 155 bodies on the site of a former laundry in Dublin. This triggered a public scandal, bringing widespread attention to the laundries and the shocking practices that took place within their walls.
Wilson (The Affair, Luther) stars as Lorna Brady, who is deeply traumatised by her experience at one such institution. As viewers see via flashbacks, Lorna’s scornful parents send her away to a laundry after she falls pregnant as an unmarried young woman. Immediately after Lorna gives birth, her newborn daughter is taken from her, never to be seen again.
Decades later, in the fictional Irish town of Kilkinure, Lorna is something of a local oddball. Consumed by what might have become of her lost daughter, she spends her nights drinking and sleepwalking, often awaking to find herself in bizarre and dangerous situations.
Meanwhile, just as Lorna finds a body in her home – the deceased seemingly connected to Lorna’s search for her daughter – Dublin detective Colman Akande (Bad Sisters’ Daryl McCormack) is called upon to investigate the murder of Father Percy – the very priest who took Lorna away to the laundry all those years ago.
“It’s been a passion project for me for about a decade. It all began for me when I watched The Magdalene Sisters, the Peter Mullan film – not even when it was out, but about 10 years after that, when I was in film school,” says Murtagh, noting the influence of Scottish filmmaker and actor Mullan’s 2002 drama about the laundries. Stephen Frears’ acclaimed 2013 film Philomena also brought wider attention to the scandal.
“That was my introduction to the Magdalene Laundries. I had never heard of them before I watched that film, despite being from an Irish family. And I’ve since come to learn that was the case for a lot of people outside of Ireland.
“Most people I talk to still don’t know about this. And that’s been the real driving factor in wanting to get this made – not just the subject matter, as harrowing and as far-reaching as it is in scale, but the fact that so few people know about it, and that massive paradox between how awful it was and the scale of it and how recently it all came to an end, versus how few people outside of Ireland know about it.
It was a similar story for Wilson, who is also an executive producer on The Woman in the Wall, which comes from Motive Pictures. A joint project between UK pubcaster the BBC and US cablenet Showtime, the show debuts this Sunday.
“I had seen Philomena, The Magdalene Sisters,” Wilson says. “I remember vaguely in the news, the [mass grave], when that came out, and being horrified by it. It touched me, but it didn’t penetrate very deeply, and I think that’s often the case with these things that are quite horrifying. As a human, you don’t really want to go too close to something that’s that ugly.
“But reading [the script], I thought, ‘This happened. It needs to be out there. We need to keep talking about this.’ Why do you do stories like this? You do it to hopefully educate people and prevent people from doing it again. That’s the ultimate aim of dramatising things that are difficult – you want to tell people, talk to people, get people understanding their history, their past, what humans are capable of.
“Doing the research and the deep dive, you think, ‘Wow, there are so many stories, there are so many things to reveal.’ It’s horrifying. And the more we can talk about it, the more people can reconcile and the more they can heal.”
When it comes to making drama from real-life tragedy, decisions must be made at an early stage about the extent to which real people and stories will be depicted on screen, if at all. And Murtagh was clear from the start about the path he wanted to take.
“I always wanted to fictionalise it and always wanted it to be a drama or a genre show,” he says. “Once we started doing the research and reading all these books and speaking to survivors and, again, realising the scale of this, it was really important to me, to all of us, to fictionalise this in order to protect all of them, and to not have anyone be able to point the finger in any particular direction.”
Described as a “gothic mystery,” the series also has a very particular tone and style, with its camerawork and eerie score at times taking it into horror territory.
“It’s my natural sensibility as a writer to play with genre anyway – that’s the kind of stuff I like to write and I like to watch,” says Murtagh. “Weirdly, it kind of became the most appropriate way of telling this this story that’s dealing heavily in trauma, to explore that through a psychological horror, thriller, gothic – whatever you want to call it – lens actually became really appropriate.
Few actors can embody the darkness that comes with such genres as well as Wilson, whose many and varied credits include such characters as psychopathic killer Alice Morgan in Luther and the wicked Mrs Coulter in Philip Pullman adaptation His Dark Materials.
She brings that experience to the role of Lorna, a disturbed and troubled woman who in the first episode alone is seen wielding a knife and an axe and starting a fire. The part is also the first time Wilson has played Irish on screen, with Murtagh enthusing that she did a “fantastic” job nailing the notoriously tricky accent.
Looking for inspiration for her performance, Wilson turned to a somewhat surprising source: Patricia Highsmith, the late American author best known for her 1955 novel The Talented Mr Ripley.
“She was mad as a box of frogs. She would do the weirdest things, but she’s fascinating as a character, and she was a bit of an inspiration for Lorna,” the actor explains. “[Lorna] pitches herself as a bit of an oddball, which means she has the freedom to be odd. But is she just provoking people? Is it real oddness, or is it so she can just live on the edge?
“The show, for me, felt like there were elements of Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, Martin McDonagh. When you’re finding characters, you’re looking for where it lands. Even [Lorna’s] hairdo is a bit Patricia Highsmith, so I was basing it a little bit on her. Not entirely, but a little bit.
Another notable element of the performance is Lorna’s particular style of sleepwalking, which is very different from the zombie-like shuffling often depicted on screen, and is rooted in Wilson’s research.
“I did a whole deep dive on sleepwalking, and there are lots of people who film themselves sleepwalking,” she says. “There’s one particular woman who does loads of YouTube videos, and it’s actually very funny. She walks like a baby and she’s stuffing things down her trousers, chucking stuff. She’s in a sort of dream state, but she’s walking around her house talking to herself and doing really weird things.
“So I was like, ‘This is brilliant, I’m going to use this,’ because it brings an element of dark humour to it, but it’s also true, it’s based on what actually happens.”
That humour is present throughout the scripts to offer some levity amid the heavy story at the show’s heart. Murtagh attributes this balance to the collaboration among the creative team, which as well as Wilson includes exec producer Simon Maxwell and director Rachna Suri.
“It was great working with these guys because I knew I could throw anything at the wall and then I’d have them there to tell me if I had gone too far,” he says. “It was a very collaborative experience and it became a lot easier to balance those things out.”
Highlighting the character of Aidan Massey (Simon Delaney), the local police sergeant assisting Detective Akande with his investigation, Murtagh notes: “He goes on to have quite an unexpectedly emotional arc in the in the series, and the way into that was through comedy, by making the audience fall in love with him through his humour. So we can then pull the rug out from under their feet and devastate them when his story becomes more emotional. That’s just one example of what we’re doing across the board in the series.
Indeed, despite The Woman in the Wall’s serious subject matter, Wilson also managed to have fun while shooting the series in Northern Ireland – and she hopes viewers will enjoy themselves as well.
“It was fun to do those things,” she says of Lorna’s occasionally amusing behaviour while sleepwalking. “What appealed to me in the performance and in the show initially was that this was very dark, important material to get out there. But there’s fun in it too, and the audience will have fun in watching her.”