Fionnula Flanagan and Sade Malone in Sive. Photo credit Patrick Redmond
There’s no escaping it, John B.Keane’s canonical Sive is a problem play. One that can pose challenges for a modern audience, especially a younger audience. Written in 1959, its tale of an orphaned teenage girl forced into an arranged marriage is not something most Irish women can relate to these days. Nor are the trials and tribulations of the 1950s, like the scandal of children born out of wedlock. Or living in a cramped, smoke drenched cottage with your grandmother, your uncle and his vicious wife, though there are many modern parallels in fairness. Structurally, there’s other issues. The eponymous Sive, more talked about that seen, is little more than a narrative device in her own story. A victim of poverty, a mean spirited community, and the controlling patriarchy, the agency-less Sive is the opposite of a twenty-first century girl boss. Not too much to see here it would seem. Yet look a little to the side, at the adults that surround her, and there’s a whole lot to see. Including a malignant, self-justifying community brought vividly to life by some of Keane’s liveliest and most visceral characters. Squaring off as they prepare their sacrificial lamb in a dark hearted production loaded with fun.
Norma Sheahan and Denis Conway in Sive. Photo credit Patrick Redmond
If Sive has been framed in many ways over the years to highlight many issues, most notably gender, director Andrew Flynn opts to forego all that, for the most part. Instead, he places characters front and centre and lets their stories unfold. It’s a rewarding decision which allows confrontational sparks to fly as what can be one dimensional villains are given greater nuance and depth. Nanna Glavin, an often holier than thou victim trapped in her own cottage might still be Sive’s guardian angel, but Fionnula Flanagan laces her with a streak of bitterness matched only be her pride. Which underscores the endless battle with her daughter-in-law Mena. Too often a hardbitten harridan, here given poignant subtlety by a terrific Norma Sheahan who allows the pain, the missed chances, and the woman Mena might have been to inform her rage and bitter hatred. Even Sive’s gormless uncle Mike, wonderfully rounded by Patrick Ryan, sees his betrayal of Sive offset by his belief he is protecting her from a crueller fate. His relationship with Mena hinting of a couple rather than two villains. Their humanity magnifying the inhumanity of their actions which they go to great lengths to rationalise.
Sade Malone and John Rice in Sive. Photo credit Patrick Redmond
Not that the cartoon villain is completely dispensed with. Denis Conway, brilliant as the belligerent, bombastic Thomasheen Seán Rua, who brokers the deal to marry off Sive, cranks up the humour with gusto. Making for a striking contrast with John Olohan’s superbly sleazy Séan Dota, a human oil slick you wouldn’t want to sit near let alone marry. Throw in two travelling tinkers in Steve Wall’s Pat Bocock and Larry Beau’s singing Carthalawn, who, with Sive’s true love Liam, a delightful John Rice, conceive an ill hatched escape for Sive, and the cast of characters that inform Sive’s life are complete. Leaving only Sive herself. Posing challenges for any actor or director given what can be huge asks in accepting her initial compliance and her final choice which are textually left underdeveloped. Sade Malone as Sive looking sublime as a young, vulnerable, almost ethereal teenage girl. Malone’s soft yet commanding presence completely captivating. Yet Sive’s near total resignation, which enhances her victimhood, comes at a price as Malone leans heavily into it. Coming, at times, to resemble a too passive, too good to be true, doe eyed Disney princess. One who doesn’t quite fit with the harsh realities unfolding. Leaving the dark ending looking contrived. Yet Malone’s mixed race Sive proves hugely effective in highlighting mixed race Irish children, many born out of wedlock during an oppressive time, that rarely gets addressed. Alas, if the gesture is noble, it compounds the problem by making Sive, once again, the cipher at the centre of someone else’s conundrum. The child at the centre of it all eclipsed beneath thematically bigger claims.
Ensemble in Sive. Photo credit Patrick Redmond
That Sive’s Kerry is a dark and threatening landscape is wonderfully captured by Maree Kearn’s angular set. The warmth of the grey walled cottage contrasted with a rear wall smeared with darkness. Ciaran Bagnall’s atmospheric lights like tenderness trapped in overwhelming shadows. In which old ghosts loom, laughter and sorrow reverberate, songs are sung to broken hearts and lost souls whilst the dark sees all and says nothing. Flawed, yet still a fabulous tale fabulously told, Sive makes for a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
Sive by John B. Keane, a Gaiety Production, runs at The Gaiety Theatre until March 16.
For more information visit The Gaiety Theatre.