The Country Girls review: Subversion reimagined as sentimentality

The Abbey’s new take makes Edna O’Brien’s novel safe for any syllabus

The Country Girls. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

The Country Girls. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

 

THE COUNTRY GIRLS

Abbey Theatre, Dublin
★★☆☆☆
“Oh, my God, where did you get it?” a shocked young nun asks when her poetic and curious charge, Kate, quotes from James Joyce’s Dubliners. “He’s anti-Christ!” That seems like a sly note of self-reference in Edna O’Brien’s stage adaptation of her celebrated 1960 debut novel, The Country Girls, which was also once a sensational piece of contraband in her own country. Where did you get it?

A remarkably told story of shedding innocence and thorny desires in 1950s Ireland – of convent-school eroticism, premarital sex and the city, and adultery with older men – it was variously banned, burnt and secretly devoured in Ireland. On one point, at least, its censors and champions could agree: literature is gloriously corrupting.

In a widely revised version of the 2011 play, now staged as a fluid dream of motion and music, the Abbey’s new production imagines the good-old, bad-old days of religiously repressed, emotionally stunted Ireland. Francis O’Connor’s set and costumes suggest a kind of monochrome pastoralism, the set as blank as a page, over which jet-black furnishings and Catholic iconography hover, and into which occasional signs of free spirit burn with colour.

The telling has been sanded so smooth that it looks like a story of unrequited love teeming with spectral support and self-agency

Here, Grace Collender’s Kate is marked out early with a raspberry beret (the kind you find in a second-hand reference), while her adored mother (Lisa Lambe) – briefly connected to her by a red ribbon, and soon severed by tragedy – is distinguished by a green housecoat and frequent otherworldly recourse to song.

A large ensemble cast flutter and scatter about them, recalling, in Vicki Manderson’s choreography, heaving waves or the murmuration of starlings. Yet no one brings quite the same energy as Lola Petticrew’s uninhibited Baba (“my best friend and the person I feared most”, Kate tells us), casually undermining and always lusty for experience. No wonder she’s feared: she’s the heedless other half of the author’s alter ego.

As though to bolster that sense of tribute, in a year when O’Brien’s Country Girls trilogy has been anointed Dublin’s One City One Book choice, the production’s director, Graham McLaren, involves O’Brien herself, in occasional voiceover, with first-person passages reincorporated from the book. In practice it’s a little jarring, as though the voice of this staging has not been decided.

The Country Girls: Grace Collender as Kate and Lola Petticrew as Baba in the Abbey Theatre’s new version of Edna O’Brien novel. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh
The Country Girls: Grace Collender as Kate and Lola Petticrew as Baba in the Abbey Theatre’s new version of Edna O’Brien novel. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

That uncertainty is amplified in performance. Collender, new to this stage, gives her ingenue an ever-hopeful rising lilt that alters little through the character’s worldly progress; Steven McCarthy makes a faint impression as her would-be married lover, the feckless, frightened Mr Gentleman; and every moment comes bathed in a misty, ever-present score, by Ray Harman, that gives it the tonal simplicity of a sentimental musical.

That may be the most perplexing alteration to the story, which bore darker suggestions of innocence and exploitation as a book, and still abrasive consequence in the first stage version. Here the telling has been sanded so smooth – with a timorous adulterer, buffoonish aggressors, Aidan Kelly’s repentant alcoholic father, and finally a much more agreeable tryst on Kate’s terms – that it looks like a story of unrequited love teeming with spectral support and self-agency.

Perhaps, thankfully, those are now the expectations of contemporary Irish girlhood, or, as O’Brien praised the audience on opening night, the fruits of “goodwill”. But there seems a deep loss in a work, once so subversive it needed to be concealed, that here looks safe enough to put on any syllabus.

Runs at the Abbey Theatre until April 6th, then tours to Cork Opera House (April 16th-20th), Town Hall Theatre, Galway (April 23rd-27th) and Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick (April 30th-May 4th)

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