SPEAKING of his late father’s ear for language and his ability to connect with ordinary folk, Billy Keane often reminds people of an apocryphal story of when a journalist once asked a regular patron of John B’s pub in Listowel what exactly it was that made John B. Keane a great writer. With typically Kerry wit, the old codger replied, “Wasn’t he the smartest man of them all; he took down everything we said and then he charged us to read it.”
Sometimes dismissed as a “popular” playwright and a “stage Irish” playwright at that, John B. Keane’s plays have hidden depths and dimensions beneath their pure entertainment value and Sive is no exception.
While the plot might seem elementary and borderline farcical- a story of an aunt and uncle arranging a marriage for their niece for a healthy commission- the themes that John B. Keane’s Sive affirm are those of lust, greed and ambition at any cost.
Thematically, such tragic themes could describe many plays, though the brilliance behind the Abbey’s programming of Keane’s Sive is how it reflects Irish society past and present as unflinchingly as the best Abbey plays often do. In recent years, barstool sociologists have proclaimed that “we lost our soul” during the Celtic Tiger; that during the boom years we became greedy, lustful and animals of excess. Through Keane’s Sive- as with The Field- we learn that we have always been greedy, ambitious, ruthless and lustful; that these qualities existed in Irish society long before Church and State separation and long before the prosperity and pluralism of the Celtic Tiger.
While Sabine Dargent’s set might seem too impressive and overwhelming for a play and a playwright that function best when at their most intimate and inclusive, the contorted plaster on the upper end of the cottage gives the effect of a dark, stormy cloud, which becomes all the more obvious during changeovers between scenes and acts when the lighting focuses on the top of the set.
And then there are the performances: Bríd Ní Neachtain’s turn as Nanna Glavin is the emotional dynamo behind the entire play, her character ranging from mischievous charm to tragic utterance, while Simon O’Gorman’s Thomasheen Seán Rua is masterful, adding to both the humor and the dramatic action of Keane’s play.
Range, indeed, wins out in this enjoyable play in which elegiac weight and side- splitting humor are mere scenes away from each other; no better example than the chorus of the traveler poets- played by Frank O’Sullivan and Muiris Crowley- who energise each humorous scene with rhymes and, during the play’s dénouement, deliver an elegy to an age that is gone, though feels strangely vital in this faithful production.
Sive runs until 12th April.
Star rating: 4 / 5
Review by: Philip Cummins
Venue: The Abbey Theatre
Written by: John B. Keane
Directed by: Conall Morrison
Cast: Ian Lloyd Anderson, Barry Barnes, Derbhle Crotty, Muiris Crowley, Bríd Ní Neachtain, Simon O’Gorman, Róisín O’Neill, Frank O’Sulliavan, Daniel Reardon.