JB Keane's 1956 play set in rural Ireland abounds with dark themes familiar to 21st century audiences
'Love! In the name of God, what do the likes of us know about love?' '200 sovereigns dancing in the heel of your fist.' 'How many times would you have to bend your back to make it?'
With lines like this, the Abbey Theatre's production of JB Keane's Sive twists and turns towards a tragic denouement. On the shallow face of it, the plot of the play amounts to the coercion of marriage between a pretty orphaned girl by her adoptive aunt and uncle to an elderly, wealthier man. Yet stormier tides swell and darker themes emerge.
First produced in 1959, and set in an impoverished mountainous area in rural Ireland, this touring production of Sive is directed by the award-winning Conall Morrison and will return to Dublin after visits to Derry~Londonderry's Millennium Forum and elsewhere.
It is the first revival of Sive by the Abbey in some 20 years, and the first time in 15 years that the world famous company has descended on Derry. Indeed, this is the first time that the two Arts Councils of Ireland have co-funded such an event.
The set, designed by Sabine Dargent, immediately alludes to the nature of life in this bleak place, featuring a milk churn, bags of oats, buckets, pails – little signs of comfort evident in a working kitchen. The back wall curves and rises into a sculpted enclosing shape, rendering the notion of a harsh, insular place surrounded by unforgiving mountains offering no escape or ease.
The opening exchanges between the formidable Mena Galvin (Deirdre Molloy) and her fiery mother-in-law, Nanna Galvin (Brid Ni Neachtain), set a pace of relentless animosity and friction. The man of the house, Mike Galvin (Barry Barnes), is tormented and torn by the mutual vitriol between the two strong women.
A mischievous and manipulative matchmaker, Thomasheen Sean Rua (Simon O’Gorman), is employed by a wealthy and lustful elderly farmer named Sean Dota (Derry Power) to arrange a match with the young Sive (Roisin O’Neill). Thomasheen craftily persuades Mena that the marriage is to the benefit of all, and she dutifully sets to work to convince Mike of the same.
Initially, Mike has his heart set against the match, but is finally persuaded by both the money in his hand and the realisation that Sive is seeing a young man, Liam Scuab (Gavin Drea), who lives nearby. Mike, with good reason of his own, loathes Scuab. A dejected and alienated Sive is browbeaten by Mena into accepting her fate; Mena and Thomasheen are cruelly unrelenting in their pressure on Mike and Nanna.
Mena and Thomasheen are evidently the unscrupulous villains at work here, though both momentarily show moments of vulnerability, inspiring a scattering of empathy with their frustration at crushing poverty and loveless, lonely lives. They are deeper, more complex than their simple avarice would suggest.
With every acerbic or mocking verbal joust the tension heightens and Keane's language is both a savage and humourous joy throughout. Sive, perhaps his finest play, is bitingly sharp and whimsically lyrical. Peppered by the mixing of Irish words and phrases with English, the dialogue rips in a soaring melange, a poetic melody of alliteration and metaphor.
Colour is added by a Greek chorus of traveling tinker bards, Pats Bocock (Frank O’Sullivan) and his son, Carthlawn (Muiris Crowley). They act as the conscience of the play and annotate events to their tragic, heart-rending end. When all the protagonists gather in the Galvin kitchen around the corpse of Sive the night before the wedding, for instance, they comment on the changing of the times.
This may be a play about mid-20th century rural Ireland, but there are strong resonances for modern audiences. It is a disenchanting view of a dismal time with its degrading economy, a society riven with intolerance and stigma that seems all too familiar.
The story of a young girl for sale to an unscrupulous bidder is no longer the stuff of a bygone era – it strikes a current and uncomfortable note in an age when cases of human trafficking and sex slavery abound in Ireland and, indeed, across Europe.
An enthralling piece of theatre, with a rhythmic musicality to the viscously vicious verbal exchanges, Sive is a theatrical and literary gift that keeps on giving so many years after it was written. This production cements this play's worthy reputation as a mainstay and classic of the Irish stage.
Visit the Millennium Forum website for information on forthcoming events.