The Colleen Bawn

The Druid production is an object lesson in how to successfully revivify plays to a modern audience

Dion Boucicault (pronounced ‘Boo-see-co’). In the world of the Victorian theatre it was a name to conjure with, as immediately recognisable then as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Kenneth Branagh or Cameron Mackintosh are in our own epoch. 

Boucicault was a Dubliner by birth, and a prodigiously busy writer, producer and actor. At least 150 plays are credited to him, most of which now languish in obscurity, and are likely to remain there.

The Colleen Bawn is an exception. Premiered in New York in 1860, the play made a hugely successful transfer to London, earning Boucicault a fortune, which he subsequently lost in a variety of theatrical ventures.

What makes The Colleen Bawn different? Why is it still staged, albeit fitfully, when other works by Boucicault languish? Part of the answer lies in the play’s Irishness, its setting in the (to English and American audiences of the period) beguiling, wildly romantic landscapes of Killarney.

Boucicault knew that he had created something special in his output. ‘I have written an Irish drama for the first time in my life,’ he commented, and contemporary spectators were enraptured by the novelty of seeing strange, eccentric Irish characters on stage before them, speaking in an odd dialect, and behaving in what, to seasoned city-dwellers, would have seemed an outlandish, extravagant fashion.

Much of this, of course, now seems old hat: the currency of ‘stage Irishness’ is long since spent, the old stereotypes of hard drinking, rural superstitions, priestly schemings, and general blarney-making well past any reasonable sell-by date.

Garry Hynes, director of the Galway-based Druid company’s new staging of The Colleen Bawn, knows this, and turns it to the production’s advantage.

There is, for instance, no dodging the fact that the character of Myles-na-Coppaleen (which Boucicault himself played in New York and London) is the ‘Oirish’ broth-of-a-boy personified. He drinks, he shoots, he brews poteen, he wisecracks, and has (of course) a heart of gold to go with it.

Hynes frames the character with light irony, wryly acknowledging that Myles is a larger-than-life figure, more multi-faceted and fantastical than any that most of us will ever have encountered.

She draws from actor Rory Nolan a delightfully nuanced portrayal, knowingly self-conscious of his own tomfoolery, but capable also of showing something more serious - his passion for Eily, the “fair-haired girl” of the play’s title, that runs deep below the surface posturing.

Hynes strikes a similarly delicate balance in dealing with the play’s strong elements of melodrama. Some of it she simply allows us to laugh at, in a way which nineteenth century audiences would not have dreamed of doing.

The character of Anne Chute, for instance, is milked for comedy, actress Aisling O’Sullivan adopting in moments of crisis a formidably acerbic manner somewhere between Penelope Keith in “Good Life Margot’ mode, and the Spitting Image version of Margaret Thatcher. There are strong comic cameos also from John Olohan, double-parting as the bibulous Father Tom, and the endlessly disgruntled servant of the Cregan household.

When the play’s crucial moment comes, however, Hynes trusts Boucicault’s dramatic instincts, and goes unflinchingly for the jugular. To begin with, the hunchback Danny’s attempts to drown Eily, the Colleen, in what looks like a giant goldfish tank, elicit titters from the audience.

By the time he has successfully throttled her, however, and she is apparently floating lifeless in the spotlit perspex receptacle, things have turned deadly serious. Myles discovers Eily’s limp, doll-like body, and bears her from the water, howling with grief and desperation. Cue the Act Two curtain, and an interlude of sober reflection.

The Colleen comes to life again, of course, and Boucicault contrives a happy conclusion for the two pairs of lovers at the play’s centre. Kelly McAuley plays the Colleen with a winning mixture of warmth, pure-
heartedness and vivacity.

To her aristocratic lover Hardress Cregan Marty Rea brings an appropriate poise and diffidence, and there’s a memorably vivid, touching performance from Aaron Monaghan as his crippled servant Danny.

Francis O’Connor’s set design, based round an open-ended greenhouse-type construction, to a backdrop of swirling West of Ireland cloud patterns, perfectly complements Hynes’s style of direction – playfully intelligent, affectionately humorous (catch the wacky, illuminated pastel wedding dresses descending from the flies at the play’s conclusion), and aesthetically pleasing to look at.

All told, this Druid production of The Colleen Bawn is an object lesson in how to successfully revivify plays whose style of communication is largely foreign to modern audiences. We are all post-Freudians now: we no longer have the psychological innocence to take raw feelings at face value, to trust our own emotions unquestioningly, or to believe that when others talk about love, they know what they are talking about.

Gently yet insistently, director Garry Hynes builds these elements of post-modern doubt, insecurity and cynicism into her updating of Boucicault’s play. In so doing she refreshes the questions about class, money and national identity that it raises, serving up a thoroughly diverting, entertaining evening in the process.

The Colleen Bawn runs at The Grand Opera House until Feb 1.