THOUGH WIDELY acknowledged as one of our foremost writers, Eugene McCabe is also, paradoxically, somewhat unsung. This may be explained by his output being less than prolific, with lengthy gaps where he focused on tending his farm, and that he wrote across different media – stage, television and fiction.
Druid’s new production of King of the Castle - which runs at the Town Hall Theatre until Saturday - is outstanding and serves as a forceful reminder and triumphant assertion of the power of McCabe’s work
The play is set amid the bleak, hardscrabble farmlands made familiar by Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger and any of McCabe’s characters could have stepped out of that world, shaped as they all are by poverty and the hardship of trying to wrest a living from rocky mountain fields. Even Scober McAdam, the play’s eponymous king, bears the stamp of poverty despite his material success; his lifelong battle to flourish amid harsh terrain has made him flinty and brutally unsentimental. This mars his relationship with his young wife Tressa; incapable of emotional warmth he can only express his feelings for her by giving her money to spend on the house. One of the tragedies of the play is Scober’s inability to show Tressa the love that she wants from him and that he does feel in his own stunted way.
Impotent himself, Scober’s skewed view of the world and his desire for an heir prompts him to ask journeyman thresher Matt to impregnate Tressa; a scheme which permanently alters their lives. Scober’s plan is partly driven by a desire to silence the mocking jibes of the small farmers who work for him, typified by Jemmy Maguire, ever ready with a malicious, belittling phrase. He also protests to the indignant Tressa ‘I did it for you’ and, at some level, this also is true.
Garry Hynes’ production of this stark and riveting play is superb. Francis O’Connor’s striking set is dominated by the wheels and pulleys of threshing machinery and metal stairs and gangways. James F Ingall’s lightine, Greg Clarke’s sound design and Stephen McKeon’s music also mesh together to enhance the impact of the play.
Hynes marshals her large cast of 14 with assured fluency and elicits terrific performances from her four principal performers. Sean McGinley is immense as Scober, one of his best ever performances. Here is a character who presents a hard unyielding front to the world but we also glimpse the inner hollowness and hurts that scar his psyche. Seána Kerslake’s Tressa, in the early scenes, docilely doles out tea and food for men around the table but she flames into vivid life as the play progresses, remonstrating with Scober over his ways and, even more, scaldingly rebuking Matt over his involvement in her husband’s crazy plan.
Ryan Donaldson also impresses as the principled worker who lets himself be roped into Scober’s scheme despite the conflicting emotions of shame and fear which it triggers in him. As Scober’s arch bugbear Jemmy Maguire, Marty Rea proves a virtuoso of a wink and elbow language of malice and shit-stirring.