Thursday 18 January 2018

Review: John B's 'The Field' has stood the test of time

John B Keane’s grandchildren (l-r) Lucy Keane Sally O’Flynn, Evelyn O’Flynn, Johnny Keane, Maggie Keane and Maimie O’Flynn at the Gaiety
John B Keane’s grandchildren (l-r) Lucy Keane Sally O’Flynn, Evelyn O’Flynn, Johnny Keane, Maggie Keane and Maimie O’Flynn at the Gaiety
Mary Keane with sons (l-r) Conor, John and Billy at the opening night of ‘The Field’ at the Gaiety Theatre

Maggie Armstrong

It's good to see the sexist jokes are still working. The worry was that on this the 50th anniversary production of John B Keane's 1965 classic, creaky humour would have rusted away.

Fear not. Uproarious laughter to the comparison of women to bullocks, and raunchy comments on Maimie Flanagan: "she's a right flier that woman".

It works, because Fiona Bell's Maimie has the ballast to handle the sexism. She laughs off the compliment and amuses with her foul-mouthed retorts.

Her strong female lead is so badly needed in a room choked with testosterone and shenanigans.

The Field is really a strange play, opening with a remarkably boring financial negotiation over land, followed by - drum roll! - an auction. Men's squabbling and swilling takes up the first half.

Though the real trigger of this famous murder plot lies in a woman's future - a parcel of land owned by Maggie Butler, the lone widow (Catherine Byrne).The land is up for public auction and The Bull, as a native who has grazed cattle there, feels entitled to it. A higher bidder appears, murder is committed.

Setting the play in a dusty pub, director Padraic McIntyre has created a world that hasn't budged for 50 years. The rank growths bristling from the roof enrich the feeling of a society in decline.

The Bull McCabe is played well by Michael Harding. As well as sprouting a frightening beard, Harding has affected a speech impediment making him muffled, through the actor's crackly Cavan tongue. He seems pathetic as he wields his little ash plant-cum-murderous weapon.

Harding is an unconvincing villain. But he gives the iconic Bull a vulnerability that shifts the menace on to others. It is after all the Bull's son Tadhg (Love/Hate's Ian Lloyd Anderson) who delivers the fatal blow. The Bull, his hit-man son Tadhg and accomplice, The Bird (a scene-stealing Mark O'Regan) make a menacing trio.

This is an understated production. A brutal murder scene is given scarcely more drama than a set change of smoky darkness.

When the bishop delivers his "appeal" to trace the murderer, his spitting ire seems misdirected. With his head glowing neon pink, this sermon on a corrupt society becomes ridiculous. Unless, that is, the urbanite audience in The Gaiety were "prepared to kill for land". Hopefully not.

Irish Independent

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