Why revive King of the Castle, Eugene McCabe’s brittle depiction of jealousy and emasculation in 1960s rural Ireland? Rarely seen since its premiere 53 years ago, it’s possibly been overshadowed by another play debuted at the same time, one that also looked at social deprivation: Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! The more likely explanation for its absence is the weakness of its construction.
That doesn’t prevent a reverential production by Druid, which brings us to a group of men dining in the house of a major farmer. Scober (Seán McGinley) silently carves into his plate as neighbour Jemmy Maguire (a compelling Marty Rea) artfully veils insults as polite conversation. “We’ve got eggs down here,” he seers. It isn’t lost on anyone that Scober is pushing 60 and without children.
A drama that exorcises shame around sexuality could resonate as much now as in the 1960s. When the workers finish their meals, Scober’s wife Tressa (Seána Kerslake) pours tea in a silent display that, under David Bolger’s movement direction, is stirringly elegiac. One man’s face flashes with jealousy, another’s with longing, others’ with loneliness and insecurity. The possibilities in McCabe’s play seem vast.
The focus, however, becomes frustratingly narrow. Yes, you’ll feel for McGinley’s Scober, agonising with impotency, but when he’s asked to list out his priorities, he sounds more mythic than real: “Every turf you save, every lamb you mark,” and so on. When Tressa brings up the possibility of conceiving a child with Jemmy, his response is frankly Byzantine: “Progeny? Sired by Maguire?” Is he in the Aeneid?
With gilded speech, and their work underscored by elegant strings in Stephen McKeon’s music, McCabe’s agricultural labourers seem more like pilgrims. When they mention a fallen farmer, the backing of Francis O’Connor’s fastidious set, resembling an abstract painting, turns from green to bronze like a withering leaf. Such a nostalgic evocation of rural Ireland is rare for director Garry Hynes, who has often suspected darker realities.
Such embellishments are at the expense of plotting, which brings us to Matt (Ryan Donaldson), a self-described journeyman, who Scober wants to provide a child for him. Whilst brokering their deal, there is a sense that Kerslake and Donaldson are performing beyond what they’re given – a circling discussion that obscures its arguments. Despite their industrious performances, neither character seems real, and their sudden leap from physical violence to passion is bewildering.
It’s hard to know what’s being critiqued here. A land-obsession in Ireland or the frivolity of other life pursuits? Male emasculation or vanity? King of the Castle is a play divided.
King of the Castle is on until 15 October 2017 at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin. Click here for more details.