When Worlds Collide
There are a great many reasons why John B.Keane’s popularity endures. His tales of rural life with their rich array of characters, melding highbrow themes with lowbrow humour, as well as piercingly astute observations on Irish society, have all provided important commentary on an ever-changing Ireland. Yet if commentary were all they yielded, it might never have been enough for them to endure. Works like The Field, and Big Maggie, tap into something profoundly primal, helped by Keane’s rich poetic language, revealing something painfully dark, yet quintessentially human. Works whose power and frailty transcend both the time and place they’re rooted in. Something clearly evident in Keane’s classic play from 1959, “Sive.”
Inspired by a conversation in Keane’s legendary Listowel bar, “Sive’s” profound social commentary on the horror of a forced marriage for a teenage girl shows a dusting of datedness at times. Yet this is surpassed by a far more potent, and timeless, exploration of the corrupting effect of power when filtered through base layers of greed and bitterness. A corruption that can see the gentlest of lights extinguished by an abject poverty of body and soul. If Druid Theatre’s current production of “Sive” strives to reveal all this and heaven and hell too, it’s an ambition it admirably achieves, for the most part. Yet just as the worlds of the past and future, the living and the dead, rich and poor, the young and old all collide and compete in Keane’s 1950’s Ireland, “Sive’s” tragedy and comedy, filtered through opposing theatrical frames, often collide and compete in places, delivering a somewhat uneven production at times.
Action throughout takes place in Mena’s Glavin’s farmhouse kitchen, where the embittered Mena, a self proclaimed martyr to her husband’s farm and family, takes the notion of ‘better an old man’s darling than a young man’s slave,’ to a whole other level. For it’s for this reason that Mena is forcibly marrying her teenage niece, Sive, to the decrepit Seán Dóta, a man several times her niece’s age. Naturally the two hundred sovereigns Mena will receive as payment are greatly appreciated, her change in fortune coming courtesy of confirmed bachelor and matchmaker, Thomasheen Sean Rua. Along with the matchmaker, Mena sells the marriage as a match made if not exactly in heaven, then just a little to the left of it. Somewhere where name, respect, and financial security top love, romance, and all the other silly nonsense the young speak about these days. Especially the innocent, orphaned Sive, who has no idea of the harsh realities of life facing a woman living in a man’s world, according to Mena. Still at school, with book ideas far above her station, Sive might long to be with her boyfriend, Liam Scuab, but he comes from bad stock and is no real prospect. Mena’s husband Mike, and her mother-in-law, Nanna Glavin, might oppose the match, but just let them try stopping Mena from getting what’s rightfully hers. In an old man’s world of secret pasts and secret pipes, in a land where breeding and bloodlines still hold sway, as do the supernatural wishes and curses of a tinker, the world might prove to be changing dangerously slow for a young teenage girl. A girl trapped between being damned into a loveless marriage and her own eternal damnation.
Despite its continued popularity, Keane’s dark and tragic tale is not without its problems, striking something of an imbalance in its effort to get quickly to the meat on the bones. If Keane’s wonderful comic sensibility, matched by an equally mesmerizing poetic sensibility, runs wild throughout, “Sive’s” hurried opening and ending, coupled with exposition and scenes that often feel overly dragged out, can make it a bumpy journey, narratively speaking, with its sudden, Ophelia styled ending feeling less impactive as a result. Reading gender, patriarchy might well have all the power, and the so-called fairer sex might be deadlier than the male, but their deathliness is often aimed at one another, showing less a sense of sisterhood and solidarity so much as women reduced to scraping at the scraps thrown to them to survive. A world of second class women serving the desires and needs of their male counterparts highlights a tragic arrangement in which everyone loses, women and children most of all.
Often utilizing an almost cartoonish, non-realist, vaudevillian style to frame “Sive’s” rich vein of comedy, and a harsher, starker, realist frame for its tragedy, director, Garry Hynes, creates some powerful and memorable moments, with the world beyond the kitchen presented as a sort of liminal space where the real and non-real converge in a near poetic, supernatural landscape. Yet if convergence often occurs, more often than not the tragic and comic compete, and a sense of balance is never consistently achieved. At times it can feel like looking at a broken mirror, seeing similar images reflected simultaneously, yet from totally different perspectives, some of which are powerful complimenting one another, others conflicting and contradicting.
An outstanding Tommy Tiernan as the skulking, slinking, sleeveen Thomasheen Sean Rua, doesn’t simply add texture, he completely sets the comic tone. Framed as a larger than life, cartoonish villain, Tiernan’s Sean Rua, looking like he’s channeling the spirit of James Finlayson at times, brings the house down in peels of laughter courtesy of an impassioned performance. One that seems to be operating firmly within a non-realist frame that owes much to the larger than life frames of vaudeville, Hal Roach, and Max Sennett comedies. A frame often successfully shared with a thoroughly captivating Barbara Brennan as Nanna Glavin, darting mischievously through doors like a pantomime dame or an Ol’ Mother Reilly. The extraordinary Marie Mullen as the tinker Pats Cocock, and an engaging Radie Peat as her blind daughter Carthalawn –two characters gender reversed from Keane’s original father and son – also inhabit something of a non realist space, one where the banal and supernatural meet to sing lackluster songs and deliver dubious blessings. Together, all seem to strive for a Chaplinesque mixture of humour and pathos, one where large laughs and real, often vicious emotional punches, converge. And often they do. Yet often this cartoon like approach clashes with, undermines, and is undermined by, “Sive’s” rich realism.
A realism powerful evoked by Andrea Irvine, savagely brilliant as the spiteful, self-justifying Mena. Brian Doherty as her weak-willed husband, Mike, Seán Doyle as the star-crossed lover Liam, and an extraordinarily brave Gráinne Good as the child bride Sive, further enhance this sense of a cold, brutal place where the good might well die young. Bosco Hogan’s Seán Dóta straddles the divide between the dark and the light somewhat uneasily. Too doddery to be dangerous, he evokes more of a sense of disgust than doom, looking so frail as to be someone even the innocent Sive could handle. An impressive Gráinne Good, making her professional debut, gives a brilliant account of herself under extremely demanding conditions, completely convincing as the trapped woman child Sive, living without agency, more akin to a frail butterfly buffeted and blown about by the forces surrounding her, an ornament to be kept on the dresser, an item of exchange, unable to act in her own best interest or defense.
If, performatively, opposites create a rich tapestry unevenly woven at times, technically “Sive” is an outright success. Francis O’Connor’s impressive and compelling set manages to capture both Keane’s dark poetic lyricism and gritty realism, with its tall, monumental dresser dwarfing those living beneath in their dreary domesticity, beyond which the wild trees and treacherous bogs are separated out into a dark space where the tinkers live. Opening night issues aside, James F. Ingalls lighting design also proves to be deeply evocative of contrasting moods, as are Conor Linehan’s music and Greg Clarke’s sound design.
Opposites might often attract, but sometimes, like Sive and Seán Dóta, they don’t always make for a perfect arrangement. In Druid Theatre’s “Sive” it’s case of a little of both in a tale whose theme of societal forces imposing on women still resonates today. With its comedy wonderfully vaudevillian, and its tragic realism harsh and stark, both converge beautifully at times. Yet at others there’s a palpable sense of conflict, an uneasy juxtaposition that opens a space between both, like oil and water. Yet even at such times, the oil ignites and the water douses with a sobering coldness. A searing indictment of the worse of ourselves, “Sive” retains the power to shame us with our secrets held up in its fractured frame, condemning us while letting us laugh out loud in recognition. A battle between the past and the future, rich and poor, young and old, desire and power, and a self serving patriarchy, “Sive” might be uneven in places, but when it hits it does so with immense potency. A powerful tale full of heart, hatred, and humanity, “Sive” reveals the epic in the everyday in this thoroughly enjoyable production.
“Sive” by John B. Keane, directed by Garry Hynes, produced by Druid Theatre and presented by The Gaiety Theatre, runs at The Gaiety Theatre until March 3rd
For more information, visit Druid Theatre or The Gaiety Theatre.