Friday 23 March 2018

A Sive that is sadly out of time with itself

  • Sive, Gaiety Theatre, Dublin
  • Looking Deadly, Bewley’s Cafe Theatre, Powerscourt, Dublin
Tommy Tiernan as Thomasheen Sean Rua in Druid's production of Sive by John B Keane at the Gaiety Theatre. Photo: Ros Kavanagh
Tommy Tiernan as Thomasheen Sean Rua in Druid's production of Sive by John B Keane at the Gaiety Theatre. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Emer O'Kelly

Yes, this is a masterly play - but this not a great production.

'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 probably have been dragged to the altar by the nuns on the grounds she should be thankful for her good fortune... or else been shoved into a Magdalene laundry as a rebellious harlot."

I wrote the above in a review of the Abbey's Sive in 2014. It stands today: Irish audiences still see Keane's masterly indictment of surly Irish preoccupations with land and money as something quaint: a rather hilarious folktale for us to point at as not being part of modern Ireland. Well, it is: there may be running water on the small farms of Kerry nowadays, but there is still the ugliness of grasping covetousness, as there are still Irish women, and not just on small farms, who are prepared to sell themselves for a roof over their heads, aka "security".

In 2002, shortly after the author's death, Garry Hynes mounted a new production of the play for Druid; perhaps his shadow then stayed her hand to prevent a forthrightness that this time round threatens to swallow the audience, while characterisations are turned into caricatures in her current production at the Gaiety.

Sive may be melodramatic in tone: but it is a play of ugly reality (and, in its day, got Keane excoriated by official Ireland). And either Hynes has stepped back (unlikely, given her iron record) to allow her cast free rein, or she sees the play this time round as something of a caper.

In particular, the comedian Tommy Tiernan, cast as the flesh-crawling, almost perverted "matchmaker" Thomasheen Sean Rua, who instigates the sale of the schoolgirl Sive to a man old enough to be her grandfather, comes close to being an overloaded jester figure from the days of music hall. Barbara Brennan is almost balletic as Sive's sad, disempowered, loving grandmother (aged 80, and after a lifetime of unrewarding labour on a hill farm in Kerry in 1959?)

The eponymous Sive is always a difficult role to cast: she's only 16, but the role requires layers of subtlety and glowing innocence. Grainne Good, unfortunately, seems entirely detached, and the device of suspending her high above the stage at one stage in a sort of tower of kitchen cupboards is as pointless as it is jarring (the actor looks visibly terrified). Nor, sadly, is there any sign of chemistry between her and Sean Doyle's young suitor Liam Scuab.

The device of casting women (Marie Mullen and Radie Peat) as the mythically vengeful tinkers Pats Bocock and Carthalawn may be entirely acceptable but again, despite Mullen's battling efforts, they come over as figures of fun rather than terror. (And since when did a Kerry tinker singer have a strong Dublin accent?)

There are saving graces: notably Brian Doherty as Mike Glavin, lumberingly well-meaning but weak-willed, and Andrea Irvine's Mena, damned as much by her nature as by her miserable life experience. And there is a finely tuned Sean Dota from Bosco Hogan, in the role which is often seen as a joke in itself as he slavers after the young Sive. This is not Garry Hynes' finest hour.


The Show in a Bag initiative of the Dublin Fringe Festival and Fishamble has thrown up quite a few small gems in its time. Looking Deadly, the latest offering (at Bewley's Cafe Theatre in Dublin) may not be quite a gem, but it is a highly entertaining romp with quick-fire gags (sometimes too quick!) and a blackly disrespectful sending up of the business (literally) of undertaking.

A struggling female funeral director in Foystown, Co Sligo, is under pressure: her pride in her job is being undermined and undercut by a local gombeen man who has gone into the same business across the street. The race is on for clients, particularly the prestigious undertaking of the local doctor. Then the Johnny-come-lately's greed gets in the way with a messy (literally) embalming gone wrong. Mayhem follows, including an enthusiastic fisticuffs at a wake.

You get the idea. It's written by Niamh McGrath and Keith Singleton who also play all the roles, throwing in numerous "cameos" along the way (usually of different types, all of them with an eye on the main chance, be it the widow or the inheritance).

It's all good fun, directed by Amy Conroy with lighting and sound by Gareth Doran and Colm Maher.

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