Just Shiels

Ross Moore is educated in the ways of theatre at Queen's Drama and Film Centre

'Between 1917 and 1949 [George] Shiels wrote over thirty plays, twenty of them for the Abbey [Theatre in Dublin]. When it was suggested that the theatre should give Shiels "a rest", Yeats declared that the Abbey "might as well close the doors..."

'At his funeral in 1949 the priest had to go into the street in Ballymoney to find men to carry his coffin into the church. He is only remembered now by fervent enthusiasts.'

So writes playwright and director Brenda Winter in the programme to Just Shiels, her innovative new play about Northern Irish playwright George Shiels, performed at the Queen's Drama and Film Centre.

Shiels was born in Ballymoney in 1881, emigrating to America at the age of 23 where he was employed variously as a cow-puncher, a miner and a railway worker.

While working for the Canadian Pacific Railroad company he suffered an accident that left him severely disabled and wheelchair-bound. On returning to Ballymoney, Shiels educated himself by correspondence courses and started writing short stories which evolved into plays.

Dublin’s Abbey Theatre put on his play Bedmates in 1921. Throughout the 1930s his works kept the Abbey in business; in 1940 The Rugged Path attracted a record audience of 25,000 in eight weeks.

In all (the Just Shiels programme informs us) Shiels wrote more than 30 plays, 20 of which were put on by the Abbey, still more were produced by the Ulster Group Theatre and the Ulster Literary Theatre.

For all this, I suspect that many audience members like myself encounter Shiels’ work for the first time in Winter’s production. Just Shiels explores how this state of critical neglect came to be.

Shiels kept out of the limelight. We learn that he only ever saw one of his plays being performed (from the wings of the Grand Opera House in Belfast). In part this was due to his disability, in part to his abhorrence of the sham and pretension surrounding Irish literary life, but it was also due to an inherent modesty, an understanding of himself as ‘just Shiels’.

Winter’s production succeeds tremendously in evoking a sense of the playwright and his life and times. More fundamentally, however, the play grapples with the nature of literary reception. It attacks the theatrical establishment for an intellectual pretension that denied socially responsible pieces, such as The Rugged Path, the critical acclaim they deserved.

Just Shiels is a production of the Drama Studies Department at Queen’s University, for all intents and purposes Winter's practical as part of her groundbreaking Practice-as-Research MA. It makes for a very good play: engaging, often very funny, while whetting the audience’s appetite to learn more of this neglected playwright.

The play opens with Winter introducing us to Professor Leary O’Corncall (Niall Cusack) who is about to give us (the audience) a lecture on Irish theatre. Patreece Lundy enters as Madame Liberace, heckler-cum-narrator, who berates the Professor for his overly academic and canonical taste that causes him to underrate Shiels.

Liberace forces the Professor to play the part of Shiels and so the autobiographical story unfolds. This dramatic device allows for an interweaving of Shiels’ life, his plays and the political contexts of his time and work.

Niall Cusack is faultless as the elder playwright. An actor profile for Cusack on the internet claims he has ‘an excellent aptitude for accents'. He does. His double role as O’Corncrake/Shiels mirrors that of the rest of the energetic cast, who act in multiple roles.

For the first half of the play Cusack often interjects from the sidelines, watching on as the younger Shiels (played by Shaun Blaney) develops an increasing social awareness borne out of his experiences as an immigrant worker in America. He declares early on ‘I’m a socialist’ and back in Ireland, in later years, decries the sectarianism of nationalism and unionism alike.

During the course of this essentially tragic tale, there many funny moments. John Dick is hilarious in multiple roles, particularly as priest and stage Corkman, while Kathryn McCartin raises laughs throughout as the caustic Mrs Legg.

Much of the humour comes through the brilliantly-timed use of a projector screen as central prop. When Shiels muses that England is to blame for all of Ireland’s ills, Liberace interjects that she has heard this somewhere before. Cue the projector and an enlarged talking Padraig Pearse, which repeats Shiels’ monologue verbatim.

The audience is in fits when the young Shiels reminisces about his romantic encounter with Maud (‘I was no longer a boy’) and the projector does its stuff: soft focus, billowing white gown, the works.

The play is tastefully scored by live fiddle and flute tunes (‘Shoe the Donkey’ and ‘Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore’ underpin much of the production). 

Onstage, mention has to be made of an American bar-room performance of ‘Cigarettes and Whiskey and Wild, Wild Women’, with the redoubtable Kurt Taroff in the middle of the wild women.

The second half of the play portrays Shiels back in Ireland, incapacitated and eking out a living as shipping agent and aspiring playwright until success arrives.

Winter refuses to glorify her subject as struggling for his art: her Shiels would have seen no reason to apologise for being populist. He reacts to praise practically, noting ‘Jam in my face, not a lot in my mouth’, and says to the producers: ‘I’ll write you whatever you want if it’ll make me that kind of money.’

But Shiels also has a strong social conscience. During the desperate 1930s he realises ‘it's time that the vagrant had his say’. 

Knowing that ‘there is a time to speak out clearly,’ he produces The Rugged Path in 1939, which explores the dangers both in nationalism and isolationism, declaring despairingly, ‘Oh, we’re good at neutrality in Ireland’ and never shying away from the fact that ‘many a good Irishman is a bad citizen.’

The only problem for this production is that Shiels’ life was so full of inherently dramatic material that it proves hard to fit it all in. But the production succeeds admirably, placing the fascinating elements of Shiels’ life into their historical and political context with ease and humour.

The first Practise-as-Research presentation by a Queen’s Drama Studies student, Winter’s research will undoubtedly prove invaluable for the future reception of Shiels’ work. This production of Just Shiels stands on its own, however, as a first-rate play.

If Queen's students continue to produce work of this quality it will be a great addition to the cultural fabric of Belfast. And at the more than reasonable ticket prices, Practise-as-Research productions should attract audiences from well beyond the academe, which is something George Shiels would surely have approved of.