St John Ervine’s century old play about Irish sectarianism is presented here in a muscular, sharp and engaging production by director Sam Yates. While Mixed Marriage has a clear topical dogma and a transparent political message, what makes this production so intriguing is its articulation of Ervine’s dramatic argument.
The play is set against the backdrop of the 1907 Belfast strike where over two thousand shipyard workers classed as unskilled labourers demanded equal pay. John Rainey passionately supports the strike and, with vague liberalism, agrees to lead the way for both Protestants and Catholics in order to prevent political exploitation of the workers. Yet his values are put to the test when he discovers that his son is keen to marry a Catholic girl, who’s as fiercely in love as him as he is with her.
Ervine uses this domestic conflict and turns it into a political act, skilfully bringing to the argument ideological weight and emotional life. As a playwright, Ervine clearly speaks through his characters, be it the passionate Catholic Michael O’Hara, who grounds the play in Hume’s debate between reason and desire, or through Rainey, whose naive stubbornness is a matter of national significance. It’s a play packed with hyperbole but with a narrative rhetoric, as Ervine allows his audience to spend time with the Rainey family, painting a powerful social portrait before he embarks on his political argument.
Despite the almost stoic symbolism of the characters, from the heartfelt pragmatism of Mrs Rainey to the stubbornness of John, the play’s rhetoric is never too isolated from its plot. Ervine avoids preaching, and draws our attention to the development of a conflict with personal and political repercussions. The dramaturgy is emphasized in Yates’ direction, and his shortening and sharpening of the four act play into a compact eighty minutes.
The acting is superb too, devoid of melodrama, packed with versatility and emotion. Fiona Victory makes for a wonderful Mrs Rainey, Daragh O’Malley is headstrong but heartfelt as John Rainey and Damien Hannaway is a fervent protester as Michael O’Hara. Alex Baranowski’s sound design also creates a strong build up and gives a relentless energy to the performance, whilst Richard Kent’s set makes full use of the intimacy of the Finborough Theatre.
The play is governed by dichotomies and underpinned by a slightly outdated romantic nationalism; it has a potent dramatic rhetoric but not a dialogue with the contemporary. However it’s imbued with a faultless humanism and an endearing theatrical accuracy. The play serves as both a powerful historical account and a fierce game of oppositions. It is in its dramatic specificity that Mixed Marriage excels, and under Yates’ direction, one is left with a potent political portrait of how ignorance is bred.