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There's something about Maggie

Be prepared for a powerful, dark, rollercoaster ride through every emotion you know. Maggie is the part all the great female actors want to play -- Marie Kean, Anna Manahan, Marie Mullen and Brenda Fricker have all taken the role. Now Aisling O'Sullivan, star of RTE's The Clinic, assumes the mantle in Garry Hynes production at the Gaiety Theatre.

My uncle Denis Keane told me today how his brother John B used to send him the manuscripts of each play as soon as he had finished them.

Well over 30 years ago, Denis got the parcel with the draft of Big Maggie on a Holy Thursday. He read and re re-read it through the night, eventually stopping half way through Good Friday.

Denis was captivated because John B had created a monstrous, yet truly realistic honest female lead who bullies, coaxes and drives her family according to her version of survival.

We had strong female characters before like Pegeen Mike in Synge's Playboy Of The Western World.

The brilliant Sean O'Casey created tough characters like Betty Burgess. However, we had never before seen the interior mind of such a self determined woman displayed on the exterior stage.


John B's talent is in writing for women from the inside out. It is a very difficult thing to do and only a few -- think Roddy Doyle -- have achieved this successful presentation of female interiority.

The original stage production was by the late Phyllis Ryan with direction by Barry Cassin, father of RTE'S Ann. It opened in Cork and when it came to Dublin, there were queues down the streets. John B wrote the part for the late great actress Anna Manahan. Anna was in Broadway with a production of Brian Friel's The Lovers at the time of the first staging so Marie Keen took the honours in the original show. The play ran and ran and Anna came back and made the role her own.

Make no mistake, Big Maggie is not the type of woman you'd want to mess with.

At her epicentre is a desire fashioned by a cruel and unforgiving world, to do what's right for her family even with the inevitable pain that will bring.

The concept of 'concerned hardness' is what drives her.

Some might call it tough love but it is at times a savage love. Along the way Maggie bucks the conventions and mores of the time.

She takes no prisoner -- whether it be church, state or the dominant male culture: "Pride and ignorance and religion! Those were the chains around me," she proclaims.


However, it is her dealing with her family that we see, that her greatest strengths are also paradoxically her greatest weaknesses.

The dramatic realisation of this truth is what makes this play 'great' in the true sense o f the word. I won't spoil the plot for you by telling you any more.

Big Maggie is especially relevant today. She represents the women who take tough decisions because their husbands are now bankrupt, maybe alcoholics or philanderers, or as she sees it, just too plain weak to do the right thing.

The economic hardship of John B Keane's depressed Ireland finds resonance aplenty in our harsh post Celtic Tiger orbit.

Maggie is the mother who has to tell her sons and daughters to leave for UK, Australia and other parts because it is the only way they will survive.

When you see the play you will understand why great actresses like Brenda Fricker were so driven to play the part of a woman who was a feminist before the word was even invented.

I'm going to see Aisling O'Sullivan and Keith Duffy, who also stars in the production, tonight. Get a ticket if you can.