Monday 23 July 2018

Sive and a conspiracy of women

Venom: Barbara Brennan as Nanna. Photo: Ros Kavanagh
Venom: Barbara Brennan as Nanna. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Katy Hayes

John B Keane's 1959 play probes the grasping, money-grubbing Ireland that was developing in the mid-20th century as the first glimmers of prosperity were appearing after the poverty of the post -WWII period. The small farmer was coming into his own; Mike Glavin (Brian Doherty) returns from town after getting £16 for selling two pigs. The shopkeepers look at him with new respect.

If pigs are on the market, so, too, are pretty girls. Mike's 'illegitimate' niece Sive (Gráinne Good) is running a romance with local lad Liam Scuab (Seán Doyle). Mike's wife Mena (Andrea Irvine) is very hard on the girl, finding her support burdensome. Sive's grandmother, Nanna (Barbara Brennan), who also lives with them, spits venom at her daughter-in-law across the hearth.

Into this scenario comes matchmaker Thomasheen Sean Rua (Tommy Tiernan) with a plan to marry Sive off to a local elderly bachelor farmer, Seán Dóta (Bosco Hogan), whose eye has been caught by the young girl cycling to and from school. There will be £200 for Mike and Mena, and £100 for Thomasheen. Mena, an arch money-grubber, is delighted at the prospect.

Francis O'Connor's set is impressive, with a hearth situated downstage, its embers constantly glowing. This strategically places Nanna centre stage for much of her material. A late piece of action which takes place in the bog, and which is usually unsatisfactorily staged, is also cleverly handled visually.

Tiernan is hilarious as the matchmaker, in a quirky performance which is all bandy legs and sprawling physicality. A brilliant feature of Keane's play is the deployment of two Traveller characters, Pats Bocock and Carthalawn, usually played as father and son. A significant innovation in this production is that the two Travellers are played by women, Druid veteran Marie Mullen and traditional musician/singer Radie Peat. Mullen brings a queenly charisma to this folksiest of characters, and the overall effect of the gender change is to rebalance the energies of the play. Nanna and Pats in cahoots to save Sive from an ugly marriage create a conspiracy of women, working against the established order of wealth and patriarchy.

The edges of the production are terrific. The problematic area is the core relationship between the husband and wife Mike and Mena. Director Garry Hynes for Druid steers the marriage into a violent outburst early on, but this violence doesn't develop. Mena, who along with Thomasheen, is the co-villain of the piece, needs a softer side. The audience should have a better grasp of how poverty has shaped her greed, how Nanna's jibes about her childlessness might wound her.

This play was famously rejected by the Abbey Theatre but has gone on to be seen as a cornerstone of the Irish canon. It gets a thoroughly enjoyable outing here, bracingly re-imagined for those who've seen it before. And for those who haven't, Keane's great play is a must-see.

Book it now


Abbey Theatre, Dublin, Feb 8 – 17

Choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan created this version of the classic tale set in the Irish midlands, blending elements of the original ballet with storytelling and live music. A huge hit in the 2016 Dublin Theatre Festival.


Peacock Theatre, Dublin, Feb 8 – 10

Colin Murphy brings his unique bend of journalistic and dramatic skill to bear on this new play about the famous 1982 deal between Taoiseach Charles J Haughey and north inner-city champion, Tony Gregory TD. From Fishamble: The New Play Company.


Project Arts Centre, Dublin, Feb 5 – 10

Written by Lee Coffey, this female three-hander had its first outing in Theatre Upstairs in 2016, and now makes a welcome reappearance across the river in Project. It tours to Waterford’s Garter Lane and Belfast’s Lyric later in the month.

Bachelor farmers show vulnerable side

Two brothers in rural Leitrim manage their farm as they plough into their late sixties. Pat is nervous and vulnerable; Eugene is a big, practical man. Pat cannot sleep, and comes into his brother's bedroom to talk. They both have multiple thousands of pounds rolled up and hidden about the place, in the bed, between the sacks of unused cement. Pat is dressed in his good suit, the one he bought for going away. But he never went. The unused parlour is now full of milking equipment. The story of their lives leaks out.

They lost their parents when still children aged eight and 10. Their aunt came to live with them for a time and the neighbours helped run the farm, but everyone went away and the two young orphans evolved into two old bachelors. There was no one to "learn them" how to be themselves. Eugene had a botched attempt at romance with a girl in his youth, who "smiled like she was a sin". Pat always suffered with his nerves.

We get a link between the Eucharistic Congress of 1932 and the pope's visit in 1979. "Young people of Ireland I love you," said Pope John Paul II. But what about the old guys, asks a plaintive Pat.

Director Bairbre Ní Chaoimh, for Big Guerilla Productions, steers the humour and sadness into a beguiling mixture, deftly handling the quickstep shifts in tone. Writer Seamus O'Rourke plays the gruff Eugene, a strong man with an internal, unquestioning engine driving the business of the farm. Arthur Riordan is the softer, more vulnerable Pat, given to angst and prone to depressive musings. Both performances are deep and true and nuanced.

This is old-fashioned stuff: looking backwards at the 1970s, at characters who are looking backwards at the 1930s. It has a familiar feel. But it is authentic, as well as being very entertaining; it lands plenty of punches while exposing the raw nerves behind the clichéd image of the rural bachelor.

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