Gaiety Theatre, Dublin
To some of the embittered people in John B Keane’s mid-20th-century drama of coercion and greed, the young girl Sive is seen as having delusions of grandeur. Promised a school education by her dead mother, she comes and goes on her bicycle, and hunches over books, studying poetry, all with enough self-content to be regarded as suspicious. At one point someone even paraphrases our national put-down: “She has high notions.”
There are suggestions of young accomplishment in this dark tale, lucidly told by Gaiety Productions. Sive’s Aunt Mena (Norma Sheahan), resentful of money spent on her niece’s education, receives a visit from a matchmaker, Thomasheen (Denis Conway), who promises a cash reward for marrying the young girl to an elderly farmer. As power plays are made against her sorrowful uncle (Patrick Ryan) and protective grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan), Sive will need all the skill and cunning she can muster.
Sive herself has barely more than a walk-on part, which makes it exceedingly difficult for an actor to do very much with the role. But Sade Malone gives a nicely judged performance
That may be fairy-tale thinking. Keane’s drama has always been a wider study of a materialistic society rather than a story of young ambition. That makes it perhaps a tricky assignment as a Leaving Certificate text, as the play belongs not so much to its young title character as to the bartering adults around her. This distinction now seems a major flaw, in fact: Keane barely allows Sive to have an original thought.
When first seen alone with her grandmother, for instance, after cryptic comments about someone from her past, Sive is clearly, and conveniently, as much in the dark about her dead parents as the audience are. Her curiosity is expressed as a series of leading questions (“She meant my mother, didn’t she?”), giving the impression that the character is mostly here as a vehicle for exposition (“Go on, Gran! Tell me more!”).
When a barely seen young lover (John Rice) arrives at the door, she warns him that the coast is not clear (“Be careful. Uncle Mike hates you”). Sive grimly repeats the plot against her when her aunt sends her on a phoney visit to a neighbour in order to get her walking the roads alone (“I am to tell him the rail was burst with the weight of turf”). Later, when her bleak future is spelled out for her, she is constantly interrupted and can’t get a word in (“You don’t know ... you ... you ...”).
The two-dimensionality of the writing at these moments is difficult to conceal in a production that, directed by Andrew Flynn, suspends mythic touches seen in recent revivals in favour of delivering a broad comedy with neatly separated camps of villains and heroes. Sheahan is playfully mischievous, seizing Mena’s every small irritation and swiftly batting them out as over-reactions, while Conway provides brutal menace and snarl as Thomasheen. On the side of angels, Flanagan’s compassionate grandmother, much like a Traveller ally played by Steve Wall, is a more subtle conspirator.
Sive herself has barely more than a walk-on part, which makes it exceedingly difficult for an actor to do very much with the role. But Malone gives a nicely judged performance as her character is left to smile agreeably and say only what others need to hear. “It’s so hard to believe,” she says, with near-astonishment, suspecting her aunt’s plan against her. The Gaiety’s production doesn’t leave us nearly as shaken.
Sive is at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin 2, until Saturday, March 16th