Tuesday 12 December 2017

Little Women lack spirit of Christmas

ON TOUR: Keith Duffy and Aisling O'Sullivan in the new
production by Druid of 'Big Maggie', by John B Keane
ON TOUR: Keith Duffy and Aisling O'Sullivan in the new production by Druid of 'Big Maggie', by John B Keane

THEATRE, EMER O'KELLY

LOUISA MAY ALCOTT was for years the introduction to American literature for every little girl on this side of the Atlantic.

Her quartet of vaguely autobiographical novels, particularly Little Women and Good Wives, are beautifully crafted and have fairly excellent character delineation. But despite being believable, the characters are without exception sanctimonious creeps, learning the lessons of life through total self-abnegation and self-sacrifice to a level modern psychiatry would probably say verges on the psychotic.

From the opening chapter, when "Marmee" persuades her four daughters to give away their (frugal: it's wartime) Christmas dinner to a family (Irish immigrants) less fortunate than they are themselves, the whole family spends its life in walking sainthood. The height of depravity is tomboy Jo's "shameful" seduction into (briefly) writing tales of crime and violence because they sell better than soulful and quaint tales of virtue. And she (of course) falls in love with the man who points out to her the level of immorality to which she has fallen.

Although it has to be said that Ms Alcott never quite gets to grips with the unsuitable pull of sexual attraction, as in the passage when Jo's teenage friend, rich Laurie from next door, marries her beautiful baby sister Amy, and explains the marriage as "merely" sister and wife exchanging places in his heart.

No wonder Irish Catholic mothers of 10, along with their English counterparts, never had any fears about their daughters' absorption in the doings of four teenage girls in New England in the years immediately following the American Civil War.

The Gate has chosen Anne-Marie Casey's adaptation of Little Women (which incorporates much of Good Wives) as its Christmas offering, and one has to say that it seems an odd choice, with its variously downbeat themes of sacrifice and poverty, but without the Dickensian sense of jollity. Nothing is going to change for the March sisters: they'll go on being poor and self-sacrificing (even Amy's social ambitions will be circumscribed by Laurie divesting himself of his wealth in order to endow a Christian fundamentalist, teetotal third level college.)

The production looks delightful thanks to Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh's wonderful costumes, although Paul O'Mahony's set of movable pieces is more busy than evocative. None of the performances is less than excellent, while Marty Rea as Laurie, Lise-Ann McLaughlin as Marmee, Lorna Quinn as Jo and Deirdre Donnelly as Aunt March carry off particular plaudits.

Michael Barker-Caven directs and designs the excellent sound, with equally good lighting from Malcolm Rippeth. But overall, nothing can disguise the fact that this is very definitely not a Christmas spirit-raiser.

WHEN John B Keane wrote Big Maggie in 1969, Irish women existed at the whim of their husbands: they had few independent rights in law. Much has changed legally; far too little in practice: many, perhaps the majority of, Irish women still live at the financial whim of their husbands, comfortably and happily in a good marriage, in fear and deprivation in a bad one. Such an existence is, as John B shows in vivid horror, coruscating, embittering and emotionally destructive.

"Big" Maggie Polpin has buried her 63-year-old husband, a self-fancying "ladies' man" after a 25-year marriage, half of which has been spent in separate bedrooms. And now it's her turn.

Financial security is the only freedom, Maggie believes, and she sets about ripping softness, which she sees as weakness, out of her four adult children. The result is liberation for them and loneliness for her, which she sees as motherhood triumphant. Her two sons go to England, never to "darken her door again". Their sister Gert joins them, and also makes a life for herself. And Katie, her late father's darling, pregnant in sordid circumstances by a married man, is "saved" by her mother by being married off to a "strong farmer". She ends up holding the purse strings in her marriage, a true daughter of her mother.

But Maggie knows no way to plant seeds of independence other than by also planting seeds of hatred that will twist her children's lives to the grave. Her tragedy, as Keane paints it, is that she doesn't know it could have been done with love and fulfilment.

Garry Hynes has mounted a new production of the play for Druid, which will tour Ireland until the end of January. It is meticulous, dotting all the "i"s and crossing all the "t"s. But the result is a dismaying loss of subtlety, with crudities hammered home, and jokes delivered in a way that makes one feel the actors take a couple of beats before slamming them out. It makes for an evening that turns Keane's towering moral tale of emotional death into something uneasily close to a music hall 'Pat and Mike' sketch.

And two of the performances match the heavy-handedness rather too perfectly: John Olohan's as Maggie's sly suitor Byrne, and Keith Duffy's as Teddy Heelin, the commercial traveller on the make. I reached the stage where I almost had to look away each time the latter stuck his crotch out to the audience.

Aisling O'Sullivan's Maggie is, however, a real achievement: we feel for her rather than despise her, just as Keane intended. Sarah Greene plays Gert with good vulnerability, but Charlie Murphy's vengeful Katie is largely inaudible.

Francis O'Connor's set is somewhat odd, but actually works well, lit by Paul Keogan, with costumes by Oliver Townsend and incidental music by Colin Towns.

Sunday Independent

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