Thursday 14 December 2017

Theatre: Celibacy in an unwieldy time warp

  • The Chastitute, Gaiety Theatre, Dublin
  • Flann’s Yer Only Man, Smock Alley, Dublin
Stephen Brennan and Maria McDermottroe in JB Keane's 'The Chastitute' at the Gaiety
Stephen Brennan and Maria McDermottroe in JB Keane's 'The Chastitute' at the Gaiety
Val O'Donnell as Flann O'Brien

Emer O'Kelly

'The Chastitute' is dated rather than classic John B Keane, says our reviewer.

The Chastitute is an unwieldy play. Written and first performed around 1980, it contains all John B Keane's passionate sympathy for and empathy with the human condition. But it falls down as a vehicle to convey them.

It deals with rural loneliness, in this case the loneliness of a comfortably-off farmer in his 50s, longing for the warmth and intimacy of a contented marriage. But the stifling hands of sexual repression and religious respectability have imposed a kind of emotional castration, and his tentative attempts at romance all end disastrously.

Keane frequently used comedy to deliver a serious message, and The Chastitute involves a series of fairly ludicrous scenarios involving women ranging from his manipulative housekeeper through an up-for-it widow encountered at the RDS Spring Show.

They're mildly funny. But the point is that John Bosco McLaine, the chastitute of the title, is very close to going out of his mind with rage and despair. There is nothing funny about a near-demented man grabbing his shotgun and attempting to blow his brains out. The marriage of slapstick comedy and imminent tragedy quite simply does not work.

And when a production emphasises the central character's frustrations with comic postcard lack of subtlety, as in Michael Scott's current direction at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin, the attempt at suicide comes over as yet another gag. Which it is not, and was never intended to be by Keane, despite the original fault lying at his own door for his choice of methodology for delivering his message.

Scott sets the piece in the pre-pill early 1960s, when virginity outside marriage was not only assumed, but was the case in the vast majority of Irish lives, with priests and nuns always present to remind of the awful consequences of straying down the evil flowery path of sexual liberation. But even this is awkwardly handled, with the parish priest in the piece having a remarkably (and highly unlikely) relaxed attitude towards the sins of the flesh.

Stephen Brennan attempts to give depth to McLaine, but the odds are stacked too high against him , while the key support roles of the devious conman Brady and the matchmaking Micky Molloy are given a broad sweep (to put it mildly) by John Olohan and Brendan Conroy. Catherine Byrne is the unpleasant Eva Kishock, Maria McDermottroe is Aunt Jane, Aishling O'Neill the willing widow, Mark O'Regan overly sonorous as Father Kimmerly, and Sorcha Furlong and Billie Traynor both play numerous minor roles.

*******

The late Brian O'Nolan had many admirers in his various personae of Myles na Gopaleen, Flann O'Brien, and others. Val O'Donnell is one such admirer, describing O'Nolan in his one-man show Flann's Yer Only Man as the greatest satirist in Ireland since Swift.

He also points out that Joyce was one of his admirers, and although he was almost blind, At Swim-Two-Birds may have been the last book Joyce read.

A similar suggestion was made by the American publishers of Anita Loos on her behalf that Joyce reserved his ailing sight to enjoy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes when it was published in 1925. And indeed, there are quite a lot of people who might claim that Loos was a far greater and much funnier satirist than Flann O'Brien.

One of the problems with O'Donnell's production for Bare Bodkin (at Smock Alley in Dublin, and touring to Newbridge in Kildare, The Naul, and to Salzburg) is that O'Donnell writes and delivers his linking/biographical narrative rather as though he were a primary school teacher with literary notions addressing a class of 10-year-olds. And any adult who has been the victim of such leadenly smug pretension in childhood is unlikely to have retained much love of literature, good or bad.

Nor does the Flann/Myles text fare much better at his hands. In the extracts from the novels and from Myles's long-running Cruiskeen Lawn column in the Irish Times, O'Donnell chooses to ham up his delivery (under Terry O'Dea's direction) in the style of an Uncle Tom at the wedding whom everybody must shut up and listen to "because he's gas". As acting goes, that's not very impressive.

And along the way there's a lofty recommendation to the audience that they should better themselves by reading Anthony Cronin's biography of Myles.

One of the extracts included in the show is the Mylesian condemnation of school exam papers extolling poets such as Wordsworth and Tennyson. He excoriates them as "essentially Victorian windbags". What came out of this show, despite O'Donnell's best efforts to inspire adoration, was that Flann/Myles was essentially a mid-20th century windbag. And a rather nasty little man to boot.

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