Everybody knows that politics is a dirty business. Even John B. Keane, the sly and observant author of mid-century dramas such as Sive and The Field, doesn’t need to tell us. But what makes his work stir, more than the charm of its setting (which productions can heavily rely on) – the southern Irish county of Kerry – is the revelatory depth with which it can expose corruption within Irish society.
City Theatre Dublin’s new play based on Keane’s epistolary novellas Letters to a Successful TD and Letters to an Irish Minister of State, adapted by its director and cast, is wryly astute.
In 1960s Ireland, party T.D. (Teachtaí Dála – a member of Irish parliament) Tull McAdoo (Jon Kenny) is seeking re-election. Peddling widow’s pensions and planning permissions for votes seals his success with the electorate and his wife (Mary McEvoy), who urges him to phone in favours for her friends. Tull tries to hold onto some moral ground but his rival, the local schoolmaster and a former comrade in the War of Independence, is threatening to expose him as a phoney.
Some of Keane’s lines couldn’t have better timing than now, when Ireland’s minority government is held together in part by a few wildcard Independents. “With you one minute, ready to cut your throat the next,” loathes Tull. A plot development that sees a rogue Kerry T.D. break from his party and alienate it from his constituency couldn’t be more believable if it happened in real life, which in fact it did in 1997 when Irish politician Jackie Healy-Rae did exactly that.
Director Michael Scott’s staging craftily makes parallels with Irish political history. Giving Keane’s letters dramatic lift is a greater challenge. Written as satirical correspondence between Tull, his family and the voters, these letters are morphed into comic asides, showing civilians calling with greedy requests. “Is there anything I haven’t applied for?” asks a woman, already the recipient of a grant for a new roof and free electricity. But such scenes pose an awkward question for the production: who is obsessed with gain here, the T.D. or the voters?
“Every man has the Dáil in his head,” says Kenny’s Tull, referring to the Republic of Ireland’s parliament. But he’s all comically gruff and wide-eyed; never the figure consumed by power. It’s a missed opportunity as populist rhetoric (“I was one of you and I still am”) and a celebrated misdeed against a woman (“There’s nothing wrong with Tull’s tool”) all point to the distortions of Trumpism.
Instead, the production is too often marked by convenience. McEvoy is flexibly shrill, with a scowl that could cut metal, but it’s a big ask to believe her as both Tull’s wife and his daughter. Also, an economic set (which is un-credited) is a confusing choice for grounding a world so gripped by material gain.
This play doesn’t come with the knockout punch lines of Keane’s other works; the staging is lacquered with thick Kerry accents instead. What’s utterly revealed by staging these letters is that they only glimpse at the obsession with power. They can’t cut at the heart of it.
The Successful T.D. is on until 18th February 2017 at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin. Click here for more details.