ALL GOOD girls love a bad boy and Eily O’Connor, the ‘Colleen Bawn’, has two of them - her husband, Hardress Cregan who looks down on her; and local wide boy Myles na Coppaleen who wants to be more than friends.
It is a difficult position for young Eily, one that could force her to sacrifice her sense of identity or risk being disgraced. Worse still, it may even cost her her life.
This is The Colleen Bawn, the classic 1860 comedy-melodrama by Dion Boucicault which is to be staged by Druid Theatre Company at the Black Box Theatre from Thursday December 5 to Saturday 21. It will be directed by Garry Hynes.
Eily O’Connor will be played by Cork actress and playwright Kelly McAuley. She is a graduate of the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, London, and holds a master’s in drama and theatre studies from University College Cork. She has performed in numerous plays in Cork, Dublin, London, and Hong Kong, but The Colleen Bawn is her biggest role to date.
“It’s quite surreal,” Kelly tells me, during a break from rehearsals in the Druid Lane Theatre on Monday morning, “going from fringe theatre to working with the most prestigious theatre company in Ireland, but it’s wonderful and everyone has been so welcoming.”
Boucicault’s plays mix romantic melodrama, comedy, and farce were enormously popular in their day - Britain’s Queen Victoria saw The Colleen Bawn three times in a fortnight - but underneath, the playwright had much to say about contemporary Irish society, how it was affected by the imposition of the British class system, and Ireland’s deeply uneasy position, being an ‘integral’ part of the United Kingdom, but run as a colonial dominion.
“When you read Boucicault at first you think it’s just a comedy, but there is a lot of depth and dark moments,” says Kelly. “Garry Hynes is really great with text and lets us explore every aspect Boucicault has to offer. You can’t just take him at face value.
“There are a lot of challenges with Eily. There are lots of times when she is distraught from her husband trying to change her. She is far from me in that she puts up with a lot I wouldn’t, but it’s lovely to take on such a pure and innocent character.”
Eily and Hardress’ relationship explores both class tensions and the Anglo-Irish colonial relationship. Hardress seems to love Eily, but is embarrassed by her Irishness and rural sensibilities, so he hides her away until he has ‘trained’ her to be a society lady. When it all becomes too much of a chore, and he suspects her of cheating on him, Hardress thinks nothing of allowing his servant Danny to kill her.
“Eily has to give up everything about her Irishness in order to be presented to society,” says Kelly. “She has to sacrifice what she is. Hardress is trying to mould her into something she is not and that is a struggle for her. Her Irishness keeps slipping out, she has those lovely expressions like mo chroí, and it reflects a time when Irish peasants had to deny who they were.”
Hardress is not the only man in Eily’s life. Myles na Coppaleen, the region’s ‘ordinary decent criminal’ enjoys paying regular visits to the cottage where Eily is sequestered.
“As a cast we all believe Eily and Myles would have made a great couple,” says Kelly, “Myles is protective of her. He could lead her astray. He’s the bad boy, getting her dancing, and bringing her out of herself, but her heart is set on Hardress. When she meets Hardress it’s an instant attraction. He sees something that he loves in her - her innocence and kindness. He’s not used to that attitude. There is a deep love between them, but it’s complicated.”
The more political aspect of Boucicault’s plays, the relationship between Ireland and Britain, was one of reconciliation - for Britain to respect Ireland’s separate cultural and national identity, but for Ireland to reconcile itself to being part of the United Kingdom. It was a message for another time and very different political circumstances. How is Druid handling this for the current production?
“It’s a tricky topic in the play, but Garry is handling it well,” says Kelly. “All of the characters have their own separate arcs, but they all come to embrace their Irishness at the end. It think ultimately it’s pro-Irish and pro-embracing Irishness.”
In the original 19th century productions of The Colleen Bawn, Boucicault used stage mechanics, a trap door, and gauze to create a lake on-stage for the play’s most climatic scene - the attempted drowning of Eily. Will the Druid production do something similar?
“There will be special effects!” declares Kelly. “I will be getting wet - I’ll say no more than that!”