Friday 23 February 2018

Theatre: Playing The Colleen Bawn for laughs

Kelly McAuley and Marie Mullen in The Colleen Bawn
Kelly McAuley and Marie Mullen in The Colleen Bawn

Emer O'Kelly

Hardress Cregan was an anti-hero before the term was invented: a petulantly self-indulgent son of minor landed gentry, he manages to keep his trousers buttoned just long enough to marry his sweet-natured and beautiful peasant tenant Eily O'Connor; but goes on to keep the marriage secret in shame at her crudity and lack of polish. And he denies its existence when the possibility of a lovelessly advantageous marriage to his beautiful, wealthy and fiery-tempered cousin Anne Chute appears on the horizon.

Boucicault based The Colleen Bawn on real events in Kerry, which his audiences in London, Dublin and New York would have known, lending the play's melodrama a distinct frisson. Today we need a different frisson: for the piece to carry us along, it needs to be taken seriously by its cast. We must feel for the abandonment of the Colleen Bawn at the hands of her brutal betters; we must feel for the yearning of the sad suitor Myles NaCoppaleen, from her own class and asking nothing more than to worship and care for her and take pride in her forever more. We must have the empathy to recognise the same Myles, filthy-trousered poacher and poitin-maker, as the only true-hearted being on stage.

And if we want to jeer, it should be at the false values that allow a priest to connive with his more wealthy patrons, and we should recognise and recoil from the manipulative money-grabbing gombeen man Corrigan, "a half sir and a whole scoundrel", as the despicable creature he is.

Oh yes, my friends, Mr Dion Boucicault knew Ireland; and it hasn't changed in the 160 years since audiences first cheered the happy-ever-after outcome for sweet Eily and even for her undeserving Hardress, as well as for selfish and foolish Anne Chute, lucky enough not to alienate forever the affections of the patient Kyrle Daly.

Silly, entertaining nonsense? No: a photograph of our time. Which is why I think director Garry Hynes has made a few mistakes in her production of the classic for Druid (currently touring in Ireland, and which for reasons beyond my control, I could not review when it opened in Galway shortly before Christmas).

She has put the tongues of most of her cast slightly in their cheeks, and enlarged the situations to match what Yeats and Lady Gregory described as the "buffoonery and easy sentiment" of the plays which Irish (and London and New York) audiences regularly enjoyed prior to the opening of the Irish Literary Theatre ... which very few people went to. (The critic and theatre historian Dr Christopher FitzSimon has written a fascinating and authoritative study of Irish theatre in those years, under the same title, by the way.)

The Hynes production of The Colleen Bawn scores best when straight performances are dominant, chiefly from Marty Rea as the fairly contemptible Hardress, managing to combine his character's conflicting characteristics with a perfect balance against that 'ol' debbil' sex appeal which had proved Eily's near undoing.

Matching him is Rory Nolan's "lovable" capering as Myles na Coppaleen which never allows the audience to forget that the poor man is cast in the heroic mould of decency, even unto death. Equally effective is Marie Mullen as Mrs Hardress, the woman of iron who sees her duty as preserving the estate of her dead husband's ancestors, whatever the loss to dignity and integrity.

Kelly McAuley's Eily, unfortunately, doesn't manage to project the gentle innocence and unwavering fidelity the role requires any more than she manages to project her voice.

For the rest, Aaron Monaghan is flesh-crawlingly excellent as the cowering Danny Mann, as are John Olohan as the priest and Maoliosa Stafford as the ruthlessly social-climbing Corrigan. But their performances echo the overall directorial decision most evident in the sub-plot of the love story between the feisty Anne Chute and her brave sailor lad (Aisling O'Sullivan and Ronan Leahy): it's all a bit too caperingly larger than life instead of striking the author's real chords of truth.

Francis O'Connor's set, a perspex open-frame cave set amidst a naturalistic hill-scape of Co Kerry, shouldn't work, but it does. His costumes are less successful and give the impression that he too is laughing at the piece rather than with it.

Ivan McKenna leads Tara Lee-Byrne and Eamonn Galldubh in an excellent melange of traditional and original music, and Muirne Bloomer (with David Bolger) is in charge of movement.

Irish Independent

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