The Colleen Bawn

Director Garry Hynes and her superb cast careful calibrate the tone of Boucicault’s melodrama

The Colleen Bawn
Black Box, Galway

Dion Boucicault's mastery of stagecraft is easy to admire, but striking the right melodramatic note for his work is a more elusive business. In Druid's new production of The Colleen Bawn, director Garry Hynes and her superb cast have carefully calibrated the tone, taking the work sufficiently seriously to balance its transitions between farce and pathos.

It helps that this play from 1860 has a tragic, true story at its core, adapted and given an upbeat resolution by Boucicault. The plot outline of the secret marriage of a landed gentleman to a peasant girl, and his desire to release himself from the bond in order to remarry and secure his property, was based on a novel by Gerald Griffin. This drew on a murder case in Co Clare in 1819, in which a teenage girl was drowned by her fiance and his servant.

In Boucicault's version, set around the lakes of Killarney, the cash-strapped Hardress Cregan doesn't set out to murder his betrothed, Eily O'Connor (the Colleen Bawn), but wishes for her to conveniently disappear so he can marry his cousin, Anne Chute, and save his estate. Add to this a tangle of mistaken identities and secret passions: Anne Chute loves Hardress's friend Kyrle Daly, while the feckless smuggler Myles-na-Coppaleen yearns for the Colleen Bawn.


Out of a twisted sense of loyalty to his master, Hardress's servant Danny tries to drown Eily. Aaron Monaghan brings obsessive creepiness to the role of Danny, giving the drowning scene a sinister tone. Cleverly visualised by designer Francis O'Connor, it is given a minimalist treatment rather than attempting to create a watery spectacle. Other scenes are a little cramped: a transparent centre-stage gazebo works well for the Big House interiors, but the cast seems hampered by its inflexible presence throughout, and have to repeatedly duck under mountain scenery.

The ensemble displays a deliciously light touch, especially Marty Rea, Aisling O'Sullivan and Ronan Leahy, while Rory Nolan's Myles plays up the stage-Irishry that the playwright turned into an international phenomenon. There are serious undercurrents too: conflicts of class and the clash of identities between Anglo-Irish landowners, the middle-class "squireen" and the barefoot peasantry are evident throughout. This production reminds us that while Boucicault, in 1860s New York, was looking back on an Ireland he had left 30 years before, it was not through an entirely shamrock-tinted lens. Until December 21, then tours until February 8