Harding's Bull McCabe is King of 'The Field'
When the Bishop (an awesome figure in Ireland in 1965) steps into the pulpit in the village of Carraigthomond five weeks after a violent and gruesome murder, he thunders of "the silence of the lie". The gardai and the parish priest have failed to make any progress in the investigation of the murder of William Dee, the interloper prepared to buy a widow's field for a fair price, rather than it being knocked down to the bullying local farmer the Bull McCabe in a conspiracy of skulduggery.
The entire village and its hinterland knows who committed the murder: The Bull himself and his son Tadhg, with the assistance of their toady The Bird O'Donnell. Nobody has lied; they have simply refused to speak, in a combination of silenced greed and fear of reprisals.
When Maggie Butler, the woman selling the field to supplement her pension, mentions that she lives alone, and the place is lonely, the Bull bids her remember that. When the Garda Sergeant offers The Bird State reward money for information, the snivelling drunk tells him if he spoke he would not live to collect it.
That is what the Bishop is called in to try to overcome: he tells the parishioners that he or the local priests will be intermediaries. And he even speaks of the seal of the confessional not being inviolate in face of such violent injustice. (Those were the days when John B. Keane, a fierce critic of the catholic clergy, still had some belief in their righteousness; long before the hierarchy invoked the "seal" to protect its child-molesting clergy.)
Keane's The Field, given a 50th anniversary production at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin by Donal Shiels, Pat Moylan, and Breda Cashe, in association with MCD, is as profoundly disturbing and breathtakingly valid a metaphor for Irish society as ever it was. We still use silence in Ireland to protect evil; we still defend our own indefensible; and larger swathes of our society than a mythical isolated Kerry village have been kept in thrall to a brutal, anti-democratic insider elite, through a reign of violent terror.
But while the production is more successful than MCD's previous staging (with Brian Dennehy as The Bull), it still manages merely to tick boxes rather than explode into the realistic horror of melodrama that Keane intended and deserved.
And this is almost entirely the fault of Padraic McIntyre's static and uninspired direction (far too many straight lines of characters strung across the stage) and not at all the fault of a remarkable, many-layered and complex Bull from Michael Harding. He makes The Bull a creature of flesh and blood rather than prototype, giving him humour as well as pathos.
There is room for our pity as he describes his silent, loveless marriage, room for our understanding at his driven determination to preserve his links with the land ("the growth of the grass (is) the first music ever heard"), and room even for our compassion as the enormity of his crime dawns on him, along with his realisation of a haunted, terrified future.
For the rest, Arthur Riordan and Fiona Bell give sterling support as the defeated Mick Flanagan and his resentful wife Maimie (although Bell is far too elegant and fresh to be entirely believable as the down-trodden lush who has borne nine children in a dozen years.)
Mark O'Regan is a splendidly sleazy Bird, Catherine Byrne a nervous Mrs. Butler, and Aidan McArdle a rather colourless William Dee. Ian Lloyd Anderson and Conor Delaney are separately effective as Tadhg and the Sergeant, with Stephen O'Leary a touchingly uncertain young Leamy. Terry Byrne and Maria McDermottroe are the McCabes, with Geoff Minogue as the priest and Seamus O'Rourke as the Bishop.
Liam Doona's set is lavish in details, but Eamon Fox's lighting is somewhat disastrous, with the same, unfortunately to be said for the fight sequence by Donal O'Farrell, which consists of three thumps to the solar plexus: sore rather than fatal in anyone's book.