King of the Castle review: An overlooked work steps into the canon

Druid’s production picks away at the tensions of rural life with a savage eye

Tressa (Seana Kerslake) with  Matt (Ryan Donaldson) and Scober MacAdam (Sean McGinley) in King of the Castle. Photograph: Robbie Jack

Tressa (Seana Kerslake) with Matt (Ryan Donaldson) and Scober MacAdam (Sean McGinley) in King of the Castle. Photograph: Robbie Jack


King of the Castle
Gaiety Theatre, Dublin

Druid’s revival of Eugene McCabe’s 1964 drama has a deceptively inviting quality, which masks its bleak tale about the hollowness of power and property in an unforgiving environment. Francis O’Connor’s design and James F Ingalls’s lighting give proceedings an almost nostalgic glow, with the large ensemble cast resembling characters from a Sean Keating painting as they arrive on stage. But after the opening banter, a darker undercurrent emerges, as the story of Scober MacAdam (Sean McGinley) and his young wife Tressa (Seana Kerslake) unfolds.

A local bigwig made good through effort and acquisition, MacAdam’s status is undermined by his inability to have children. Spurred by the sexual taunts of boastful neighbour Jemmy (Marty Rea), MacAdam approaches would-be emigrant Matt (Ryan Donaldson) with an unusual proposition. If the plot is simple, the characters reveal their complexities as by turns they tread gently around their anxieties and jump in feet first.

This is especially true of Scober, who as majestically portrayed by McGinley careens between impotent despair and resentful fury, as incapable of understanding his unhappy wife as he is of commanding the respect of the men around him. Director Garry Hynes draws out the nuances beneath the often raucous dialogue, with the wider national analogy of Scober’s situation left unstated but remaining the overarching theme. Similarly, McCabe balances realism of the 1960s Border counties setting with a universal story of jealousy, betrayal and downfall. It has the force of classical tragedy, even as it remains rooted in everyday reality.

Overall, this welcome production takes an unjustly overlooked work and turns it into a canonical piece. Like Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! – which premiered in the Gaiety a week after King of the Castle’s first performance in the same venue at the 1964 theatre festival – King of the Castle memorably picks away at the tensions and frustrations of rural life in a changing Ireland, but with a harsher, more savage eye.

Ends on October 15th