WHO is the Bull McCabe? Is he merely a prototype for violent greed, or does he live and breathe? As John B Keane wrote him in The Field, the Bull is both: a prototype of Ireland's manhood, ruined and brutalised by spiritual and physical deprivation; and a person: a surly, vicious, vindictive bully nursing spite and greed as others might nurse beloved children.
And when his story is told, it should be in a rising, frightening surge of melodrama that is (as good melodrama should be) as believable as it is irresistible. It should be ignoble passion given flesh and blood. It should not be a series of vignettes almost offhandedly disconnected and lacking the inevitability of a tragedy that breaks a town.
The new production of The Field from Lane and MCD (at the Olympia in Dublin, and touring to INEC in Killarney and the Royal in Castlebar) would have been eagerly awaited even without the massive advertising campaign which has been running since November. With Joe Dowling directing, and Brian Dennehy heading the cast, it was a forthcoming theatrical event to be savoured.
But while the production ticks very adequate boxes, it has no fire in its belly, which is extraordinary for Dowling: he has never shirked either reality or realism. There seems to be little focus, almost as though he and his star had never sat down and decided a central theme of emphasis, and the result is the comedy (of which there is plenty) skittering around in a slightly unrestrained fashion, while the brutal tragedy is a sort of lost sideshow.
The Bull and his son Tadhg beat the interloper to death for his determination to buy a field to which the Bull believes he has rights. The townspeople have been bullied into colluding in this ghastly event, and not even the wrath of the Church can break their silence. The silence crushes them, the teenage son of the auctioneer has a breakdown under its guilty weight, and that in turn destroys the boy's mother, even her stereotypical maternal stoicism no longer a protection against the horror surrounding her. It should be horror upon horror; but it patters rather than thunders.
Yet the cast, by and large, do an excellent job. Dennehy is perfect for the Bull, his huge frame a lumbering mass and even his accent acceptably Irish (although it is rather too educated). His vocal projection does leave a fair bit to be desired, however.
Derbhle Crotty's Mrs Flanagan is a triumph of discontent into disintegration, a perfection of Keane's intention, but it operates in isolation due to the lack of overall force, and the same can be said of Brendan Conroy's slimy, ingratiating Bird O'Donnell, and Bernadette McKenna's terrified, watchful Widow Butler.
John Olohan and Brid Ni Neachtain have splendid layers in their portrayals of Dandy and Mrs McCabe, artful and cunning by turns, Ni Neachtain in particular able to convey volumes in a cackling laugh.
Stephen Hogan makes the interloper William Dee a thoroughly unpleasant bounder, an interesting portrayal that poses questions as to whether the town would have faced other threats had he had his industrial way.
Gavin Fullam makes the unfortunate Leamy Flanagan beautifully uncertain and emotionally gangly, and Eamonn Hunt is a stolid Mick Flanagan.
The support is uniformly good, including Garrett Lombard as Tadhg McCabe, Alan Archbold as the Sergeant, Malcolm Adams as the priest and Bosco Hogan as the Bishop.
Frank Hallinan Flood's design is an odd mixture of Shakespearean blasted heath and Fifties Abbey kitchen sink, and the final weak link is Donal O'Farrell's fight direction which is laughably unconvincing.