Like a folktale, John B. Keane’s dark tragedy from 1959 has been passed through generations. Originally rejected for professional production, it was embraced instead by the Listowel Drama Group and shuttled between dedicated amateurs. Decades on and since visited by several companies, it re-emerges in director Garry Hynes’s invigorated production for Druid, presented by the Gaiety Theatre, and shows it can still summon a crowd.
We find Sive (Gráinne Good), young and educated, being raised by her compassionate Nanna (Barbara Brennan) and uncle Mike (Brian Doherty). But waspish aunt Mena (Andrea Irvine) abhors her niece for complicated reasons only ever glimpsed at. Elsewhere, Keane spun long-stewing resentment into dark comedy. Here, it leaves Irvine hard at work.
With a visit from the matchmaker Thomasheen (Tommy Tiernan), a deal is made to marry Sive to the elderly farmer Seán Dóta (Bosco Hogan) in return for a large sum of cash. Even Doherty’s conflicted Mike will betray – he believes “money is the best friend a man ever had.” Adding to the tragedy, Sive will be torn from her sweet romance with protective Liam (a nicely judged Seán Doyle).
Other productions have insisted on playing this seriously but Hynes sees it through fresh eyes. If Brennan’s roguish Nanna – who, in accordance with being an old woman staring into a hearth, must be recognised as a sage – observes “the devil’s work”, then let it be so. Tiernan’s wicked Thomasheen, hunched forward and slowly advancing on others, is like Mephistopheles. These are positive signs of a contemporary production, taking Grand Guignol as its inspiration, but not everyone makes the jump. Irvine and Doherty, for instance, play the material straight and sombrely.
Here, for every welcome departure there’s a frustrating restraint. The two “men of the road” Pats Bocock and Cartalawn, by showing up in the shape of Marie Mullen and Radie Peat, offer generous solidarity to harangued Nanna as a peer: “You’ve the appearance of a young one.” Other decisions aren’t as innovative. Set designer Francis O’Connor’s cottage seems to stretch its walls and furniture high above mostly for convenience.
The production’s transformation is clunky in the final moments but it offers a new way of seeing Keane’s tragedy nonetheless. A play, like a folktale, depends on energised tellings to keep alive. Even one as indefatigably popular as Sive will need to be viewed afresh to keep in circulation. With signs of forging a folktale into a dark fable, this feels like progress.
Sive is at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, until March 3rd. For more details, click here.