The original ‘Sive’ stars: from John B’s dispensary with dramatic effect
As ‘Sive’ strides across the Abbey stage, two actors who formed part of the original cast share their memories of Keane’s early, enduring writing in Listowel
Alive with Sive: Nora Relihan and Margaret Ward, from Listowel, Co Kerry, who were in the first production of the play in 1959. Photograph: Alan Betson
Simon O’Gorman, Bríd Ní Neachtain and Derbhle Crotty in Sive at the Abbey Theatre. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
For most 21st-century theatregoers who will see it – including a generation of young people who are studying the text as part of their Leaving Cert English course – John B Keane’s Sive portrays an Ireland that no longer exists. But for two women in the audience at the Abbey’s new production, which opened last week, Keane’s play evoked a world that was very real, and very close to home.
In the winter of 1959, Margaret Ward, who was then Mae Dillon, was a 15-year-old secondary-school student in Listowel. Nora Relihan, recently returned from London, where she had qualified as a nurse at Guy’s Hospital, was a keen member of Listowel Drama Group. When they were given the parts of Sive and Mena Glavin, respectively, in a new play that was being rehearsed for that year’s All-Ireland Amateur Drama Festival competition, they had little inkling of the dramatic effect it would have on their lives.
Nowadays, thanks to its own long-running and distinguished literary festival, Listowel is synonymous with literary excellence. But in 1959 it was just another Irish country town with few pastimes apart from the cinema, the handball alley and the pub. Amateur drama, as Relihan wryly points out, thrived during the Lenten period “because you couldn’t go dancing”.
For Ward, acting was something she did on the street with her friends. “When you’d come out of school, you could get right down to the bank of the river, so a whole crowd of us used to go down there and act out whatever film was on at the time. Lorna Doone , I remember, was one of our favourites.”
The drama group, she says, was a big deal in the town. “Every family was involved, really, at that particular stage.”
How did she come to get the role of Sive? “I was asked to do a reading,” she says. “I happened to have been in a school play – The Song of Bernadette – before that. So maybe that’s how they thought of me. I went down to read, and that was it.”
First encounter with Keane
Keane’s rambunctious tale of dysfunctional families and arranged marriages is a long way from that pious portrait of the French saint and her 18 visions. But in 1959, Keane himself was an unknown quantity in Irish theatre. Relihan first met him when she was doing some relief work at the local hospital.
“John B was the chemist’s assistant,” she says. “He would come up on his bicycle to the hospital, and he would dispense with me. Not the poisons, now, but the ordinary medicines. One day he pulled a paper out of his pocket and he said: ‘By the way, I’ve written these things. Two short stories. I’m thinking of sending them off to the Evening Press . Would you ever have a read of those and tell me what you think of them?’ That was the first time I had a conversation with him.”
Why did he ask her? She smiles and shrugs. “Maybe I had the Queen’s English that time,” she says. In due course she reported back to Keane: she liked his stories. Shortly afterwards, with the drama group, she happened to direct a play called All Souls’ Night . “It was by Joe Tomelty, a Northern playwright. I met John B then outside the door of the pub they had just bought – the famous one – and he said: ‘By the way, I saw that play. I didn’t think much of it. I’m going to write one of my own.’ He sat down for three weeks. He wrote Sive . That was it.”
The opening night of Sive at Walsh’s Ballroom in Listowel has gone down as one of the rowdiest in Irish theatre history. Relihan compares the atmosphere to that of a football final at Croke Park: “They hollered and they shouted, and every time the two tinkers came in they just yelled their approval. ‘Oooooh.’ It was tough enough to get through that, wasn’t it?” she says to Ward, who nods. “Remember that scene with Nanna by the fire, and Mike Glavin, and you’re coming over to attack Nanna, and he comes between you. And they shouted up from the audience: ‘Lave ’em at it.’ ”
“There was a priest there,” says Relihan. “And he got a sick call. They used to get those at night, you know? When I said: ‘You’re a common bastard – a boy child’ to poor Sive, he walked out. And people in Listowel said, ‘It was because Nora called that poor girl a bastard.’ People heard themselves in the language, you see.”
Even those who didn’t much like what they heard changed their tune as Sive stormed through the four qualifying regional festivals to reach the finals of the All-Ireland Amateur Drama Festival. When the play won, it became an all-Ireland sensation. “It exploded, really, didn’t it?” Ward says to Relihan. “We didn’t get a forewarning.”
A standing ovation and an allergy They got a standing ovation at Wexford Festival Opera. In Dublin there were huge queues outside Queen’s Theatre on Pearse Street, the Abbey’s home at the time. Meanwhile, Kerry residents in Dublin vied with each other to entertain the cast in royal style. “We were asked to Eamon Kelly and Maura O’Sullivan’s house for a party,” says Ward. “But the night before, I had had scampi at a hotel. I’d never eaten scampi before. That was how I discovered I was allergic to shellfish.”
Ward and Relihan also did a season in Cork, where they established a “ Sive table” at the Metropole Hotel. “We had a hilarious time,” says Relihan. “We’d be invited all over the place. Usually there was a roof off the presbytery, a roof off the school, a roof off the convent. I don’t know how many roofs we put up. Sive saved half the church buildings in Kerry.”
Eventually, Ward had to go back to school – she was qualified as a primary teacher – and Relihan reached a point where, as she puts it, she “could play this woman no more”. Although she was invited to join the Abbey Players as a result of her performances as Mena Glavin, such a career choice was simply not an option for a married woman, with two small children, who lived in Listowel. But she continued her interest in amateur drama and, now in her 80s, is still adjudicating at festivals around Ireland.
When they watched the new production of Sive at the Abbey, did the script still fizz around in their heads? “Oh, yes,” says Ward. “We can even still quote some of the lines.” They are full of praise for the actors who play Sive and Mena – Derbhle Crotty and Róisín O’Neill – although they express concern at the speed with which Conall Morrison’s direction whizzes along. “It must be exhausting for the actors,” says Ward.
Far from exhausted, O’Neill says she’s energised by the role. “I love playing this part,” she says. “Even though it’s a tragic story, it’s a fun part to play and a fun play to be a part of.” She has been particularly surprised, and pleased, by the positive feedback she has had from young people, especially young women, in their 20s.
As for the speed of the production, “Well, that’s the way we planned it,” says O’Neill. “And the thing is, everything happens really fast in Sive . The action unfolds very smartly.” How would she sum it up? “It’s a really funny play,” she says. “If you like black humour, you’ll love this.”