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.”