Brogues and Rogues
Dion Boucicault has enjoyed something of an uneasy relationship with Irish theatre. Arguably the greatest Irish theatrical export of the mid to late Victorian era, second only to Oscar Wilde, Boucicault’s popular melodramas enjoyed huge success, particularly in New York, during his lifetime. Today, their contrived plots, endless asides, and stage-Irish characters can often make Boucicault’s plays difficult to stage for a contemporary audience, less enthralled by, and sometimes judgemental of, Boucicault’s Oirish shenanigans. A challenge director Clare Maguire rises to admirably in Smock Alley’s production of Boucicault’s 1874 classic, “The Shaughraun.” For, like Boucicault, Maguire sets about playing with, and subverting, the biased and prejudiced, while never losing sight of the theatrical or a sense of fun.
Set against a backdrop of signalling bonfires, steep cliffs, and an army garrison, in Boucicault’s convoluted tale man proposes and God disposes as betrayals, prison escapes, and love’s first bloom all erupt in the small village of Suil-a-beg in County Sligo. Chickens come home to roost in the guise of wrongly convicted criminal Robert Ffolliott, with old wrongs looking to be set to right upon his return. Yet squireen, Corry Kinchela, and the duplicitous Harvey Duff, have their own vested interests to protect and set about thwarting Ffolliott’s path to freedom. Meanwhile, Ffolliott’s sister, Claire, is smitten, against her better judgement, by the English Captain Molineux. As their unexpected love grows Claire, along with the roguish Conn the Shaughraun, sets about doing all in her power to ensure her brother’s freedom. But will the Captain discover the truth? Will the real villains be exposed? Will justice finally prevail? And will true love win the day?
With “The Shaughraun,” Boucicault proved himself ahead of his time in placing, on stage, rebellious Irish peasants giving voice to their concerns before English and American society. To do so he needed to make the Irish palatable by satirising their stereotypical associations. Lazy, drunken, devious, bewildering, Boucicault’s characters beguile with charm and humour. But at what cost? For many, they resemble the Irish equivalent of black faced minstrels. For others they unlocked a door allowing silenced ideas and voices to be heard in the drawing rooms of London and New York. These tensions director Clare Maguire beautifully plays with, particularly the uneasy tension between laughing at and laughing with, as well as the unresolved tensions between the Irish and the English which can still reverberate today.
Maguire’s visually engaging production, like a memory half seen through the mists of time, is wonderful rendered by an adaptable set by Ger Clancy and a terrific lighting design by Shane Gill. Miriam Duffy’s superb costumes, hinting of a steampunk sensibility, wonderfully flaunt with the historical while being firmly lodged in the contemporary. Discarding Boucicault’s music while retaining much of his lyrics, Jack Cawley, along with the cast, craft some memorable musical moments, hinting of blues and New Orlean’s jazz, which help facilitate transitions. Yet voices sometimes compete with instruments, and singing is often uneven, with several individuals sounding like they need to be mic'd up. Indeed, poor projection is often an issue, and not just with singing, depending on which side of the auditorium you’re sitting.
Throughout, Maguire elicits some terrific, highly physicalised performances, showing great attention to movement and pace. Her decision to cut Boucicault’s cast of characters not only helps narrative focus, not that you always notice, it also helps minimises the need for too much doubling up. Something Deirdre Monaghan, as Mrs O’Kelly and a solider, handles wonderfully. As does an excellent David O’Meara, riveting as the village priest, Father Dolan, and the devious Harvey Duff. Jack Mullarkey as the convict Robert Ffolliott, handles his straight man duties with aplomb, and Martha Grant as his wife Arte O’Neal, and Martha Dunlea as Moya Dolan, Conn the Shaughraun’s love interest, are both delightful, with Dunlea showing the most accomplished, unmic'd voice on the night.
Yet while all performances are solid, some are simply superb. Aron Hegarty as the black-eyed blackguard, Corry Kinchela, relishes Kinchela’s pantomime, over-the-top, cartoon villainy, delivering a sharp, focused performance showing hints of a Jim Carrey-like genius at times. Liam Heslin as the eponymous Conn the Shaughraun, a sort of older, Irish, Huckleberry Finn, capably delivers with roguish charm and infectious delight, turning in a memorable performance. As does a hugely impressive Juliette Crosbie as the spirited Claire who falls in love with, of all people, an outsider. With her penetrating eyes and mocking half smile, one suspects the camera would love Crosbie as she channels the red headed feistiness of a Mary Kate Danaher. The stage most certainly does. As it does the consistently excellent David Fennelly as the posturing, perplexed, yet principled English Officer Molineux, deeply endearing and desperately in love with his red headed Irish cailín. Indeed, Crosbie and Fennelly exude such natural ease and chemistry, reminiscent of the greats of the screwball, romantic comedy, they’re simply a joy to watch, whether trying to resist the irresistible, or turning butter churning into a delightful innuendo.
With “The Shaughraun” Maguire and her impressive cast have taken a difficult script, honoured it, and made it both accessible and appealing to a contemporary audience. It can still feel long in places, and its convolutions are still hard to follow at times, but its rich theatricality, astute direction, and stunning performances make “The Shaughraun” a romp worth seeing.
“The Shaughraun” by Dion Boucicault, runs at Smock Alley Theatre until September 1
For more information, visit Smock Alley Theatre