Big Maggie


Town Hall Theatre, Galway

It is the day of her husband’s funeral, an occasion for which she expresses a level of grief best reserved for recently spilled milk, and Maggie Polpin is all business. She haggles over the cost of a headstone, economising on the epitaph: “There’s enough lies written on the headstones of Ireland without my adding to them”. She then convenes her four children for the will – which, in this case, could be more accurately described as a “won’t” – as though it were an EGM. Big Maggie – shrewish widow, tough-love disciplinarian and dab hand at breaking spirits – has just discovered her liberty: “there’s new management here now”.

There’s new direction for Maggie, too. Rather than the ramrod-straight iron lady that Marie Mullen constructed for director Garry Hynes at the Abbey in 2001, Aisling O’Sullivan (who Druid has now twice widowed prematurely) gives us something more louche: a woman in her 30s, stooped and surly, with a Kerry accent so hard it leaves bruises. It’s a bold bit of casting and O’Sullivan gives a tremendous performance, although with her head bowed and her brow scrunched tight, O’Sullivan may not give into grotesquerie, yet still seems removed from us. Nonetheless, it is a contemporary spin on John B Keane’s stunning vision, from 1969, of an admirably monstrous figure: the Irish mammy.

This production makes Maggie even more of an avatar for the nation; hardened by circumstance and betrayed by authority, she is now in charge of her own destiny: “ . . . like all wives, I kept my mind to myself. Pride and ignorance and religion! Those were the chains around me.”

With such resonances, Hynes can afford to stage it as a period piece, for which everything from Oliver Townsend’s costumes to Val Sherlock’s hair styling supplying nostalgic retro-chic pleasures. Designer Francis O’Connor similarly abstracts his set subtly against a hard sheen, where a backdrop of empty black shelves dominates the stage, a freestanding pole ascends into nowhere and Paul Keogan illuminates contemporary products with sickly fluorescence.

The production so enjoys the pleasure of surface that it even gives a role to Keith Duffy, so enjoyably priapic and potent as the salesman Teddy that everyone seated in rows A through D is advised to carry some form of protection. “You’re so uncomplicated,” Maggie tells him.

Duffy, to his credit, takes it in his stride.

The same might still be said for the play, whose bon mots form a glib stack and whose character dynamics, although beautifully negotiated by Charlie Murphy’s tragically acquiescent Katie and Sarah Greene’s humiliated, rebellious Gert, belong to a straightforward schema.

It is still fiendishly compelling, as much for its zip-along pace and strident social critique, as Keane’s careful ambiguity around the making of society’s heroes, villains and victims; all of whom are in Maggie. “I can’t say you’re right,” John Olohan’s part-time suitor, full-time chorus Byrne tells Maggie, “and can’t say you’re wrong.” More than 40 years later, the great success of this gripping production is that we still can’t.

Ends Saturday, then tours to the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, November 21st-26th, and tours nationally until February 11th