Despite the success of the Abbey’s production of The Shaughraun a few years ago, Dion Boucicault is not, perhaps, the most likely candidate for a revival, given that he’s the dramatist who did the most to entrench the idea of the stage Irishman, even as he sought to complicate that idea. His work should be a hard sell to Irish audiences. And yet, this new Druid Theatre production of one of Boucicault’s most ‘Irish’ melodramas, a huge hit in the 1860s when the playwright himself played its wiliest character, is more engaging, and surprising, than one might expect.
The Colleen Bawn is comic piece featuring the hard-up Anglo-Irish Cregan family whose faltering fortunes bring them into contact with the Irish peasantry in ways that spell disaster for all parties. Druid balance the play’s exaggerations of the Irish characters with equally whole-hearted exaggerations of the Anglo-Irish, the visiting sea-captain friend (eternally puffing his pipe), the horsey heiress.
But listen a little more closely, and Boucicault’s stage Irishry is no easy thing: the play presents it as a sort of disease more than a character type. ‘macushlas’ and ‘mavourneens’ afflict even the eternally self-policing Cregans, for whom hibernicism is the least forgivable, least convertible class marker. But it turns out that in this changing world, they would do well to emulate the resourcefulness and protean charms of Myles na-Coppaleen, the local poitin-maker and ne’er-do-well for whom even the moon is a prop, and who ultimately becomes the hero of the piece.
Roguish and feckless though priest, Irish mammy and Myles-na-Coppaleen are, the play reserves its venom for the aspiring Catholic class on the make. ‘But you didn’t know the hardship of being sold until you tried it yourself’ , the ‘squireen’ Corrigan reminds the shocked Mrs Cregan. It’s not the mortgage he means, though, but his proposal of marriage, when she finds herself in a pinch as her son Hardress shows a curious disinclination to marry the rich heiress who will save their fortunes.
The trouble, of course, is that Hardress has fallen for the Colleen Bawn of the title, a peasant girl from across the lake, the lovers as well-favoured and ill-fortuned as Hero and Leander. (The tall stories are so tall, the brogue so thick, that it was almost a disappointment to find the ‘Colleen Bawn’, the mythically-praised Irish beauty of the title, a fetching Maureen O’Hara type already putting on Quiet Man ways.) The threats now awaiting the Cregans – poverty, eviction, debt – are nothing a team of redcoats can quell.
With this production, Druid once again mine the archive of Irish drama for familiar but unsettling plays, myth-breakers as well as myth-makers. And they nail it with their usual aplomb, retracing the contours of the Irish dramatic tradition after their own fashion, proposing the precocious modernity of the unlikeliest contenders. (Who could imagine that Boucicault’s stage Irishmen – and women – might speak our language?) But Boucicault’s characters are introduced in good company. Former Playboy of the Western World, Aaron Monaghan, plays another would-be murderer as the deformed Danny Mann, so fawning on the very man who has so injured him that he would go to any extreme for him.
Behind Martin McDonagh, Druid found Synge; behind Synge, Boucicault. Once again, it’s the concentrated artificiality of the language that opens doors for Garry Hynes, Druid’s long-standing artistic director, and the possibility of exposing the considerable violence it lightly shrouds: both are Druid hallmarks by now. Perhaps unfairly, precisely because the production looks so effortlessly assured, one suspects that it is also a little lazy: only when the plot is getting a little too over-cooked does Hynes pull out some sensational staging tricks of her own. The way in which a wedding crowd is mustered, even as the whole stage-space is inverted, is breath-taking, and the lake scenes show real panache, aided by Ben Ormerod’s gorgeous lighting.
Francis O’Connor has created a quirky, decidedly modern set chock-full of perspex, with the Kerry mountains cut out of shadows, though the very awkwardness of the entries and exits through a perspex door, like a drawing-room comedy in the wilds of Kerry, are themselves understandably parodied by the overstuffed servant Aloysius, played here by John Olohan.
There are some very enjoyable supporting performances all round, notably from Aisling O’Sullivan, breathing wit and fire into the unpromising Anglo-Irish horsey type with a name as peremptory as her ways; Maelíosa Stafford curling around corners as an oleaginous ‘squireen’ with an eye to his own profit; Rory Nolan’s incorrigible Myles-na-Coppaleen.
Victorian melodrama it may be, with more than a dash of knowing leprechaunery, but this production proves that its sensationalism can be still feel fresh (and even shocking), while its cloying stereotypes are just arch enough for contemporary tastes.