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Theatre: Searing tale of youth betrayed

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 FEAR: Sive (Roisin O’Neill) is faced with a forced marriage to an old man in this explosive and searing revival of the tale, at the Abbey, directed by Conall Morrison

FEAR: Sive (Roisin O’Neill) is faced with a forced marriage to an old man in this explosive and searing revival of the tale, at the Abbey, directed by Conall Morrison

FEAR: Sive (Roisin O’Neill) is faced with a forced marriage to an old man in this explosive and searing revival of the tale, at the Abbey, directed by Conall Morrison

IT was as late as the 1980s when a university-educated senior executive in the public service, a woman, told me in irritation that John B Keane's Sive was a ridiculous melodrama, without human credibility. In real life in 1960, she said, the teenage Sive would not have killed herself when faced with a forced marriage to a lascivious old man, but "would have been off to the nuns, and they'd have looked after her". I believed, and said, that Sive, an "illegitimate" child, would rather have been dragged to the altar by the nuns on the grounds that she should be thankful for her good fortune ... or else been shoved into a Magdalene laundry as a rebellious harlot.

Now we know – but in the 1980s we were still in denial of the simple, brutal truth that Keane put on stage: the ugliness and emotional poverty of much of Irish rural life, with women selling themselves for a roof over their heads, and men buying a housekeeper (often a farm labourer as well); and sex merely a joyless physical release from pent-up misery.

Sive has now been given an explosive, searing revival at the Abbey under Conall Morrison's relentless direction. In Derbhle Crotty's Mena, Sive's embittered aunt, we can see shadows of the hopeful girl before drudgery and incompatibility encased her in the greedy shroud that prompts her to sell the girl's innocence to the highest bidder.

Barry Barnes is no less than a devastation of helpless confusion and misery as her conflicted husband, with Simon O'Gorman an amoral foil as the scheming matchmaker Thomasheen Sean Rua. Brid Ni Neachtain is a cauldron of seething powerlessness as old Nana Glavin, who can save neither herself nor her beloved granddaughter, played with innocence and dawning fear by Roisin O'Neill.

Ian Lloyd Anderson is the passionately lovelorn Liam Scuab, beautifully pitched. But I would argue with Daniel Reardon as Sean Dota: merely placidly elderly, he does not make your flesh crawl with his determination to have Sive in his bed, whatever the cost.

Frank O'Sullivan and Muiris Crowley are suitably electrifying as the tinkers Pats Bocock and Carthalawn, casting well-deserved fear through the "betters" on whose scheming they form a doom-laden chorus.

Set design by Sabine Dargent is magnificently offset by a towering scenic "bas-relief" by Sandra Butler.

***

It seems odd to associate the master of clipped and lighthearted verbal gymnastics with a group of depraved people stoned out of their minds and indulging their sexual urges as destructively and selfishly as possible. Yet that is how Noel Coward first made his name, with The Vortex in 1924.

The play is a horror story, the kind of thing that by turns sickened and disturbed British audiences when it was later portrayed by the New Wave dramatists of the 1950s. Except that such storylines in the 1950s were usually set in dingy East End or northern mining town lodgings. In 1924, Coward gave his audiences educated, privileged people, dressed by the best couturiers of the day, with impeccable accents and all the advantages of breeding, destroying themselves and each other in an abandonment of ugly hedonism. And he got away with it, making his name in the process.

He got away with secondary themes of cocaine addiction depicted on stage as the destructively unglamorous force it is, and with unacknowledged homosexuality depicted as equally destructively tragic. The premier theme of the play, of course, displays a cruel contempt for women, which would continue to mark Coward's work: a woman's looks are all, and losing them renders her as pathetic as it makes her vicious.

Annabelle Comyn's new production of The Vortex for the Gate in Dublin pitilessly marks out this glittering array of elegant ugliness. The cast is headed by Susannah Harker, superb as Florence Lancaster, as predatory as she was once beautiful, pursuing love affairs with a succession of younger men under the disillusioned eyes of her husband (Simon Coury.) Her son Nicky (an equally superb Rory Fleck Byrne) flounders in self-disgust as well as loathing for his mother, and in a desperate attempt to deny his nature, enters an engagement with Bunty (Katie Kirby), a sophisticated young woman who has no illusions about his sexuality, but has had enough of her rootless life. But a countryhouse weekend proves all of their undoing as Florence's current lover (Ian Toner) is faced with Bunty, and their past affair is re-kindled.

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Comyn elicits spectacularly good performances from her cast, combining seething restraint with wrenching emotional agony. It's Coward as Gate Theatre audiences have not seen him before, and possibly not how they expected him, despite the exquisite overlay of Peter O'Brien's lavishly authentic 1920s costumes, and Paul O'Mahony's mirror-lit art deco set. But it's a hugely satisfying evening of theatre.

***

There's no happy ending; tragedy is only a breath away throughout; and yet Catherine Barry's Charlie and Me at the Viking Sheds in Clontarf in Dublin is a bit of a joy.

It's chronologically predictable from the moment a drunken, nervous woman staggers into the aftermath of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, to the denouement of self-realisation and a kind of contentment. Yet, there's quiet stage drama as she finds and loses love along the way, and the Charlie of her account also finds a life beyond mere existence, just before it's too late. In other words, it's both sad and sweet.

Maeve Fitzgerald and Steve Blount play this two-hander for all its gentle tragedy, beautifully directed by Peter Sheridan. It's designed by Andrew Murray.


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