ON MONDAY February 2 1959, The Listowel Drama Group presented the premiere performance of Sive, John B Keane’s debut play, thus launching the career of one of Ireland’s most popular writers.
In the ensuing years Keane would pen such enduring classics as The Field, Big Maggie, and Sharon’s Grave, but Sive remains among his finest works. Set in north Kerry in the 1950s, the play is about the beautiful teenage Sive who lives with her uncle, Mike Glavin, and his wife Mena, and Mike’s mother Nanna.
Local matchmaker Thomasheen Seán Rua convinces her guardians that Sive should marry Seán Dóta, a rich but decrepit old farmer. Seduced by the prospect of a £200 pounds dowry, Mike and Mena agree to the arranged marriage but their decision has terrible consequences.
Sive is currently enjoying a much-acclaimed new staging from the Abbey Theatre and as part of a nationwide tour it is coming to the Town Hall Theatre from Tuesday December 2 to Saturday 6 at 8pm.
John B and the potency of Greek drama
The production is directed by Conall Morrison, one of Ireland’s foremost directors. As well as directing numerous plays for the Abbey, he has worked for the Lyric Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and English National Opera. Given his extensive directorial CV, it is surprising to learn that this is Morrison’s first time to tackle John B Keane.
“It is actually,” he tells me over a lunchtime call. “Fiach McConghail [Abbey artistic director] asked would I be interested in doing Sive. I’d seen several productions of it and always been a fan of it and of John B Keane. The characters are great, the language is great, his mastery of narrative is remarkable. So I went and had a good study of it and thought ‘Yes, I’d love to get my teeth into that.’ I’m delighted to have done it, it’s a remarkable piece.”
Morrison expands on the qualities of Keane’s play, calling it a “wonderful fusion of different styles”. “It’s a domestic drama set in a country kitchen,” he says. “It’s got something of both melodrama and folk drama in terms of its speed and turnover of event and incident. The language is so muscular and darkly poetic. There’s a wonderful use of the Travellers; the play has a heightened energy when they come in singing their songs and bringing their traditions into it.
“But it’s also got the potency of Greek drama, it’s a tragedy in terms of human flaws like greed and desire. I love the fact that it weaves all these things together into an incredibly potent unified force. I wanted to try and rise to that, to make sure that all of the energies and the colours and the conflicts that John B has built into it were properly vivid and present in the production.”
The title role of Sive is played by up-and-coming actress Róisín O’Neill, from Cork. “Sive is 17, on the cusp of womanhood so you need someone that looks youthful but has the experience to be able to carry that onstage,” Morrison notes. “After a long search we were very lucky to find Róisín, she is amazing in it. Audiences’ hearts go out to her. She has a wonderful life and light about her onstage but she is able absolutely to track the tragic journey down as all the pressures on Sive mount.”
The Glavin household is animated by a strong female dynamic but the two older women, Nanna and Mena, cannot abide each other, and the play seethes with their sharp-tongued antipathy.
“They are living in a patriarchal society but they run the family and within the house it’s a matriarchy,” Morrison observes. “These women are incredible forces and Mike Glavin is in a hell of a force-field of personas and wills and competing drives. John B writes remarkable roles for women and watching these women tear lumps out of each other is both very entertaining and very alarming. Ultimately it is a tragedy but he packs a lot of humour into it along the way.”
There is also much humour in the characters of the two Travellers, Pats Bocock and Carthalawn, as Morrison readily agrees.
“The curses that they put on Mena and Thomasheen Seán Rua are very entertaining and the audiences just gobble up, these boys coming on with the bodhrán and their rhythms and, it’s a wonderful set of spirits to bring into a theatre,” says Morrison. “It’s a very canny piece of writing by John B. These parts are funny and mischievous and subversive but they are also about tradition. There is a lot in the play about greed, a new Ireland coming in and they represent other traditions which are more ancient and venerable, less amenable to the calculator and the counting house.”
A finger on Ireland’s dark underbelly
Morrison notes that, as in The Field, John B was “really putting his finger on Ireland’s dark underbelly” in Sive. “The play is ultimately about the abuse of power in relation to a young woman and her sexual identity,” Morrison says. “Sive is been sold to this old man because he’s got money and the adults collude in this. Ultimately a young girl is effectively sold off for sex so it does indeed speak to everything that we have learned about the shameful dark dealings that were going on up and down the country during the 20th century. The play has its own story set in the 1950s but it absolutely speaks to how people in power abuse that power in relation to the vulnerable.”
While Thomasheen and Mena might be seen as the play’s villains, Morrison posits a more nuanced view. “The play is wonderfully weighted, no character is wholly good or wholly bad,” he says. “While you might think Mena’s only motivation is greed, she is trying to get her life back on track. She’s had no children of her own and has had to bring up another woman’s child in a house where her mother-in-law is flaying her on a regular basis. Her predicament is brutal so whenever she sees this opportunity you have to understand where she is coming from.
“It’s the same with Thomasheen; we learn that he had an early chance of marriage himself and it fell apart because of economics. He has never had love or companionship and with the commission he is going to get from Sive’s marriage there is a widow woman he can settle himself in with. So we realise that all of them are looking for some kind of better quality of life or some kind of love and companionship which they haven’t properly had.
“The play is fierce and it is dark and it plays out tragically and there is a lot of conflict in it but it’s actually all about love which everyone is trying to find, love and sex and some kind of meaningfulness in their relationships. That is what they are doing, it’s not just putting money into their bank account, they want to try and find a dignity and an emotional solace that has been denied to them.”
The cast of Sive features Barry Barnes, Muiris Crowley, Bríd Ní Neachtain, Simon O’Gorman, Róisín O’Neill, Frank O’Sullivan, Gavin Drea, Dee Molloy, and Derry Power.
Tickets are €25/22 and are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie