Sive Comes North

Abbey Theatre venture outside of Dublin to perform JB Keane's famous play in Derry and Belfast 

This week, the Abbey Theatre brings John B Keane’s play Sive to Derry~Londonderry in their first stop-off on an eight-venue tour outside of Dublin. It will be the theatre's first visit to the Maiden City in 15 years, and its first ever performances in the Millennium Forum.

The facilities the cast and crew will find in the Forum, as in the new Lyric Theatre next month – products of the last 15 years or so of theatre building in Ulster – will be very different from those they had to make do with in the past.

The Guildhall, where the Abbey played on a previous visit to Derry, was not adapted to the performance of drama. Micheál Mac Liammóir, who brought his Gate Theatre Company to its stage in 1945, complained of its limited facilities.

Just over 170 years before, in 1774, a still earlier Dublin troupe of actors had opened Derry’s first theatre, a primitive, one-room affair, on that same site.

Sive is set in a world that seems now strangely remote: the impoverished rural world of DeValera’s Ireland, where his idealistic vision of 'the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens' concealed a quite different reality of shame, hypocrisy and deception.

Keane gives us a tragic tale of greed, passion and poverty in which the young, beautiful but illegitimate Sive is a pawn of the corrupt and conniving adults in her immediate family.

Her Uncle Mike and Aunt Mena are determined to marry her off to a septuagenarian farmer, Sean Dota, to get their hands on a £200 dowry. Their willingness to sacrifice the 18-year-old Sive to a loveless marriage for financial gain forms the crux of the play.

Add in an accommodating match-maker, Thomasheen Sean Nua, a sympathetic grandmother and Sive’s young suitor Liam, a relative – unknown to her – of her biological father, and the scene is set for a downward spiral of argument, violence and ultimate tragedy.

Sive was Keane’s first play, dating from 1959 when he was in his early 30s and a pub-owner in his native Listowel, County Kerry. From behind the bar, Keane was able to overhear and absorb the speech of local people, which provided the nuances and distinctive language of his characters.

The isolated, rural Ireland of his play contrasts strongly with the later 1950s Dublin of Edna O’Brien’s novel Country Girls, published around the same time.

Keane’s play was premiered in Walsh’s Ballroom in his home town of Listowel by an amateur group in February 1959, and went on to win the All-Ireland Drama Festival of that year, before being performed at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. In later years, Belfast-born actress Siobhan McKenna made the title role her own.

Keane is recognized as one of Ireland’s most prolific playwrights and authors, with 19 plays to his name, plus many short stories and his humorous and witty series of ‘Letters’. His plays in particular offer us a lens into what now seems a lost world, almost inconceivably remote from the world of the Celtic Tiger and its aftermath.

Keane is now often regarded as the elder figure of a growing literary and theatrical dynasty. His brother was actor Eamonn Keane, and father of award-winning writer and broadcaster, Fergal Keane. His Kilkenny-based son, John, is also a journalist.

Conall Morrison’s new production of Sive ran at the Abbey Theatre for two months earlier this year, and now goes on tour highly acclaimed, with critics full of praise for the play’s set, music and actors. It has been described as ‘hauntingly timeless’ in its depiction of rural life.

‘I am delighted to be touring one of the great plays in the Irish literary canon,' said Fiach Mac Conghail, director of the Abbey Theatre, who is proud to be taking this Abbey Theatre production north of the border. 

'In partnership with our two Northern venues, joint funding from both Arts Councils enables the Abbey Theatre to reach new audiences across the whole of Ireland. Rooted in the social fabric of rural Ireland, Sive is one of Keane’s most celebrated plays and speaks universally to us all about human cruelty and greed.'

Sive runs at the Millennium Forum, Derry~Londonderry from October 8 – 11, and at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast from November 4 – 9.