Real-life dramas? We don't do those. But John B Keane did

Sat, Jan 22, 2011, 00:00

CULTURE SHOCK:IMAGINE THE FOLLOWING scenario. In 2008 a man is found strangled in a ditch. In the narrow community where the body is found suspicion falls on the man’s neighbour.

There was bad blood between him and the dead man, and he was known to have a violent temper. But the people who know what happened say nothing, and the Garda investigation goes nowhere. Three years later, in 2011, a young dramatist from the region where the crime was committed begins a play inspired by the murder and the community’s silence. By 2012 the play is finished. It changes the details, but not to the extent that the story’s origins are in any doubt. And it uses the story to attack the hypocrisy and moral cowardice of the community and, by extension, of Irish society. This is not, of course, a plausible conjecture. Writers in contemporary Irish theatre don’t do this kind of thing. And even if someone tried to do it, a standing army of lawyers would be mobilised to insist that the play could not possibly be staged.

But this is precisely what John B Keane did when he wrote The Field by the River(subsequently renamed The Field) in 1961 and 1962. The play has become so familiar, not least through Jim Sheridan’s freely adapted but essentially faithful film, that it is hard to recall the sheer courage of Keane’s enterprise. What he did was shocking, reckless and searingly painful. The strength of Joe Dowling’s tough and sober production at the Olympia (it will tour next month to Killarney and Castlebar) is that it goes a long way to restoring that sense of moral ferocity and public urgency.

The feeling of jealousy that accompanies The Fieldnow arises from two factors. One is that realisation that no one now has the kind of public courage that Keane showed when he dug so deeply into a moral morass of his own community. The other comes with remembering that The Fieldis a boom-time play. When it was first staged (at the Olympia), in November 1965, Ireland was in the throes of its first bout of supercharged economic growth and hyped-up optimism. Here was a big national drama, dealing with grand themes of tradition and modernity, money and morality, law and authority, hurling itself against the ramparts of the nation’s self-satisfaction. Here was a voice declaiming that, for all the shiny new consumerism and glossy technology of the boom, ours was still a peasant society, haunted by gombeenism and an atavistic obsession with property. Where was that voice in the theatre when we needed it during our more recent, even more inflated and self-deluding boom?

The obvious answer to that question would be to say that the theatre is no longer the arena for this kind of public questioning, that the culture has moved on to other forms. In that case, though, why are people still flocking to see The Field?Why can this 50-year-old melodrama, full of apparently anachronistic conventions, connect with audiences in an Ireland so apparently transformed from the one it depicts? Because, surely, there is still a hunger to see those big, hard moral themes tackled on stage with conviction and courage. And because, for all the excellence and sophistication of so much contemporary drama, that hunger is not being satisfied by Keane’s successors.

The forcefulness of Dowling’s production is all the more remarkable when one considers how much of the play’s original context, both culturally and socially, has disappeared. Most obviously, for example, the fact that a sermon by a bishop sets the moral benchmark must be a puzzle to younger audiences.

Less obviously, it struck me, seeing the play this time, how much it draws on a form that was so central to Irish culture in the 1950s and 1960s: the American western. The Bull McCabe’s hold over the village is that of the baddy in so many westerns: High Noonis perhaps more of an influence on The Fieldthan Synge or O’Casey. But the shocking thing for an audience saturated in westerns is that in The Fieldthere is no one to wear the white hat, no uplifting moral resolution. It is the Bull who holds the stage at the end. Not only that, but he excoriates the hypocrisy of both the priest and the Garda sergeant (Church and State) and claims, in Keane’s superb last line, that the murdered man will be “forgot by all except me!” The play survives the loss of these points of reference because of its underlying moral force and because it provides some great parts for actors.

Keane himself believed that he had “written two great characters in the Bull and the Bird O’Donnell”, the cadger and flatterer who embodies the amorality of the community. The great surprise of Dowling’s production is that Keane had in fact written a third great character: Maimie Flanagan, wife of the publican and auctioneer who presides over the dirty dealing. Alongside Brian Dennehy and Brendan Conroy in the first two roles, Derbhle Crotty’s brilliant portrayal of the despair of a rural wife helps to reveal something not previously obvious: that The Fieldis also a feminist play.

Brian Dennehy as the Bull gives the kind of towering performance the role demands. There are some limitations to what he can do. His generic Irish rural accent means that the play cannot be situated vocally in its intensely local setting. (We should be able to hear the strangeness of the stranger who comes in to buy the field.) And Dennehy’s beautiful American teeth and mysteriously clean overcoat mean we cannot say what Keane said of Ray McAnally in the original production: “He looked like a man who smelt of dung.” But Dennehy is a great physical actor. He is a Bull who does not have to rage. He intimidates with looks and small movements, the way he turns his shoulders or moves his arms to hint at the violent power they contain. And yet, as the role demands, he betrays his anxiety and inner tension by the way he fiddles with his cap or the apparently involuntary movements of his hands to shield his face. The crazed acquisitive hunger of the Bull has never been shaken off, and Dennehy’s summoning of its ghost is as disturbing as it is compelling.