Wednesday 22 November 2017

Theatre: Tough women, 1970s and 1980s style

What lies beneath: Karen McCartney and Keith Duffy in Druid's production of Big Maggie at the Gaiety. Photo: Matthew Thompson.
What lies beneath: Karen McCartney and Keith Duffy in Druid's production of Big Maggie at the Gaiety. Photo: Matthew Thompson.
Kerri Quinn and Michael James Ford in Educating Rita at the Lyric.

Emer O'Kelly

With Aisling O'Sullivan reprising the lead role and with the two secondary male leads again assumed by John Olohan and Keith Duffy, it might be assumed that Druid's new production of John B Keane's Big Maggie at the Gaiety in Dublin is very much the mixture as presented more than four years ago.

But director Garry Hynes has taken a new road for the work, entirely to its advantage. The 2011 production was large (to the point of caricature in some cases) and with the emphasis on cheap laughs. It was largely O'Sullivan's passionately icy Maggie which saved it from sinking into music hall burlesque.

This time around, Keane's ghastly scenario of sexless bitter marriage on the one hand and repressed sexuality finding its own frequently sordid route on the other, is a harsh, even sickening picture of Irish life as sculpted by property greed and religious respectability.

Director Garry Hynes has reined in all the portrayals this time round so that Keane's undoubted comic genius highlights the ugliness, rather than swamping it. O'Sullivan again gives her audience a Maggie Polpin as crudely, bitterly cold as only disappointment and powerlessness can make a woman; widowed and determined that her sons and daughters will survive, the only way she knows to equip them for life is to control them with emotional brutality.

Cut off from financial expectation, and armed with a "good Catholic education" which has left them fit for nothing other than menial work, they must leave or be forever dependent on her harsh bounty.

Written in 1969, Big Maggie may seem to be a period piece; but if circumstances have ostensibly changed in Ireland for women and for society at large, the play's universality and strength leave one with the uneasy feeling that the ugliness of soul it strips bare is still there beneath the surface: that Ireland is still a graceless society.

Charlotte McCurry and Karen McCartney take over as daughters Katie and Gert respectively, with Muiris Crowley as Maurice and Emmet Byrne as Mick.

Clare Monnelly is Mary Madden, the girl with secret strength, and Clare Barrett takes over as her mother (the only performance which Hynes does not seem to have been able to rein in: an overblown disappointment from an extraordinarily talented comic actor.)

Set and lighting are again in the hands of Francis O'Connor and Paul Keogan, with music by Colin Owens and authentic costumes by Oliver Townsend.


It seems a bit patronising to relocate Willy Russell's Educating Rita to Belfast, even though the production is a local one at the Lyric Theatre. Or at the very least, a bit patronising to Open University students in Belfast to imagine that they could better identify with local poet Robert Atkinson than with "mainland" master Roger McGough. But then, if the assumption of the adaptation is a bit blinkered and parochial, it does rather fit in with the philosophy of the original author, who has made a highly successful career out of, it seems to me, patronising the working class from which he came in a manner that would probably have got him lynched had he been middle-class. It strikes me anew every time I see one of his plays.

That said, the Lyric production, directed by Emma Jordan, assisted by Oisin Kearney, transposes fairly smoothly from Liverpool in 1980 to the more fraught atmosphere of Belfast in the same year, even though sound effects of army helicopters supposedly hovering over Queen's in the background, and John Hume pontificating on the radio on the forthcoming hunger strikes add nothing and certainly do not cast a shadow, political or otherwise.

Michael James Ford took over at short notice as the ageing, drunken tutor Frank, but you'd never know. It's a wordy part, yet he's inflection- and mood-perfect, with an accurately self-mocking undertone to the irritation and self-pity.

Kerri Quinn is Rita, rambunctious, aggressive and vulgar to the Nth degree, and calming nicely into a woman bewitched by literature in all its manifest charms.

Jordan keeps a tight enough rein to ensure that the sub-theme of love's tenuous draw having many forms is never lost in the verbiage as hairdresser Rita learns to assert herself under her academically defeated tutor's cynically bewildered guidance. And having seen several versions of the play, I found a perhaps unintended element of misanthropy in this one: that a genuine education will defeat love nine ways from Sunday… a bit rough! Stuart Marshall's set is mood-perfect, as are Enda Kenny's costumes. Sound and lighting are by Philip Stewart and Sarah Jane Shiels.

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