Culture Shock: Knowing better than trying to out-buffoon the buffoon
Rory Nolan, Tom Murphy, Garry Hynes, Aaron Monaghan and Rory Nolan after the opening of Druid Theatre’s The Colleen Bawn in the Black Box Theatre, Galway
You mess with Dion Boucicault at your peril. Underneath all the blather and blarney, he hides a shillelagh that, for more than a century now, has been thumping anyone foolish enough to patronise him.
In a sense, modern Irish theatre emerged as a war on the man who dominated so much of English-speaking theatre in the Victorian age. The first manifesto of the Irish Literary Theatre, the Abbey in embryo, declared: “We will show that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery and of easy sentiment . . . ”
No one can have had any doubts about who the sentimental buffoon in question might be. And did they banish him? Divil a bit. Boucicault proved to be as blithely irrepressible as one of his own broth-of-a- boy goodhearted Oirish rogues.
Consider, for example, the Abbey’s greatest tragedy, Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. It is, surely, in its heart- wrenching agony, a million miles from Boucicault’s slathers of sentiment and sensation in The Colleen Bawn, which is now thrillingly revived by Garry Hynes for Druid. Except that O’Casey owes his disreputable predecessor almost as much as the overmortgaged Cregan family in The Colleen Bawn owe the despicable lawyer Corrigan.
Family on its uppers? Check. Marriage as a way out? Check. Problem with marriage? Check. Young man with physi- cal deformity and a dark secret who gets shot: for Johnny Boyle read Danny Mann. Not for nothing does Joxer ask Boyle: “D’jever rade Willie Reilly and his Colleen Bawn? It’s a darlin’ story, a daarlin’ story.”
But if you can’t keep him out, you can’t put him down either. Most of the Boucicault productions I’ve seen – including a problematic one of The Shaughran by Hynes – have tried in some way to send up or burlesque the plays.
There’s a kind of each-way bet: Boucicault is too damned lively to ignore but too silly to take on his own terms. Hence, directors grasp him in one hand while holding their noses with the other.
Hamming it up, parodying the stage Irishness or surrounding the action with some kind of meta-theatrical prophylactic – these are all ways of signalling to the audience that we’re all superior to this kind of hokum. Boucicault is the ironic 1970s school disco of the Irish theatre.
But he has his revenge here too. The plays just won’t co-operate with being burlesqued. The more fun you try to have at Boucicault’s expense, the less fun the plays become. If you mock them, they retreat to a corner and kill themselves. And there’s a reason for this: Boucicault is much more knowing than anyone who thinks they can patronise him.
He is not some naive hick from the dark ages. On the contrary, he is arguably the one Irish figure who has a good claim to be a genuine creator of industrial mass culture. He was plugged in to huge cities, to globalisation, to technology, to the commodification of cultural difference.
The great pleasure of Hynes’s Colleen Bawn is that she takes Boucicault seriously. This is not to say that she takes him solemnly: on the contrary, the production is fast-paced, slick and terrifically entertaining. It is not especially funny, but then the play is, after all, about poverty, ruination and murder.
Instead of forced jokes, it delivers real exuberance. Boucicault survives, not because he makes you laugh, but because he pulses with an undying energy. The trick is to find the switches that turn it on and then stand back and let it flow.
Hynes identifies two switches. One is the use of space. The great creative tension in Boucicault is that he’s trying to cram a cinematic imagination into a theatrical space. His problem is that movies haven’t been invented and that he has to do all of his shifts of scene and perspective, all of his visual and physical sensations, in one small space.
Francis O’Connor’s set, magically lit by Ben Ormerod, brilliantly recreates the strangeness of this enterprise. The combination of a cut-out diorama of Killarney with a see-through Perspex hut that serves to mark all interior spaces allows all sorts of effects of shimmering, disappearance and ghostliness. The melting together of inside and outside creates a dreamlike world.
The other switch is that even if we are in a kind of dream, dreams have their own logic. The people within them can be very odd, but they must make sense in their own world. Here, the characters behave just like that: they are free to be absurd, even ridiculous. But they have to be so with a rigorous consistency.
They have to stay within the frame: when Hynes allows a joke about Marie Mullen’s double-casting, it is at the very end and it serves to draw attention to the way she and the rest of the excellent cast have in fact observed a very tight discipline: no nods or winks, no double takes.
Rory Nolan, Kelly McAuley, Maelíosa Stafford and Aisling O’Sullivan in particular hold to this controlled eccentricity, while Aaron Monaghan brings out beautifully the irony that the one really believable love in the play is Danny’s demented infatuation with his master.
In doing so, they liberate this Oirish space from embarrassment. It becomes just another dreamscape, a Killarney Forest of Arden where anything can happen. When the actors are not embarrassed to perform in it, the audience is not embarrassed to enjoy it.
The Colleen Bawn plays in Sligo, Dublin, Belfast and Limerick this month and next month.