The predictable becomes penetrative and poetic in the Abbey Theatre's compelling production of John B. Keane's play
Sive, originally penned by Co. Kerry playwright John B. Keane in 1959, and brought back to life by Dublin's Abbey Theatre and director Conall "Re-Energize" Morrison, is a masterful theatrical work. It is miraculous in how it could so easily fall into a plethora of clichéd narrative traps, yet doesn't merely sidestep them, but evades them.
The key to Sive's success is not solely in its storyline but in something that I call "moody expressionism": in actuality, the difference between Sive and a prototypical Cinderella meets Romeo & Juliet strand that runs throughout the play is extremely minute. Yet a remarkable, atmospheric set, a strong directorial hand and, most importantly, perfect casting make it unique: the predictable becomes penetrating and poetic in a soundly balanced, deeply nuanced and sometimes blackly comic play. It's not stretching things for me to say that this is the best play I have seen in my years of arts reviewing, and it is likely to remain so.
Róisín O'Neill's winningly fresh-faced title character is an illegitimate teenage schoolgirl living under the roof of her late mother's brother, Mike Glavin (Barry Barnes) and his wife Mena (standout performer Deirdre Molloy). Mike's mother Nanna (Bríd Ní Neachtain) is also resident, but she and Mena are at each other's throats, creating a channel of disturbing rage to go with an already dysfunctional familial setting. The cracks in the rocky wall of this dwelling only scratch the surface of the turbulence within.
The inquisitive, energetic Sive is both pivotal and a human being, a troubled soul and the fulcrum of the disturbance surrounding her. Her function initially appears to be no more than a surrogate child for an aunt who was unable to have a child of her own. But it's worse for Sive than that: said aunt is an unkind, hard-hearted figure who repeatedly seeks to keep Sive in constant fear of her elders. Yet one does not view Mena as a monster, but instead somebody who has been warped, twisted and damaged by her own testing upbringing. Having been forced into an arranged marriage herself, she appears envious of Sive's qualities, and is keen to ensure that the girl does not have the chance to live the life that Mena almost certainly once dreamed of – even if it means denying her an education.
Enter local matchmaker Thomasheen Seán Rua (an unsettlingly funny Simon O'Gorman), whose gruffly humorous facade unconvincingly hides bullish and not-very-bright tendencies. Thomasheen, Mike and Mena plan to marry Sive off to wealthy septuagenarian Seán Dóta (Derry Power), a creepy hybrid of Father Ted’s Bishop Brennan and Fiddler On The Roof's Lazar Wolf.
Seán unsurprisingly makes Sive wince: furthermore, she has a love of her own in Gavin Drea's Liam Scuab, a suitor who Nanna thinks ideal for Sive. But, of course, this cuts no ice with Mena's prejudices and financial needs, while Mike holds a serious grudge against Liam for his cousin’s actions. For Liam’s cousin, Sive's biological father, died before his promised marriage to Sive’s mother could be realised.
It is a richly thematic and symbolic situation. Mena has a "mean" streak. Seán Dóta "dotes" on his betrothed, allegedly. And Sive has quite literally "scythed" a stake between her uncle and her aunt. Mike's marriage, the very thing keeping a roof over his head, is at risk, and Sive's love life is in the hands of a "matchmaker" who has no concern for the consequences of the match! As Thomasheen himself remarks, "What do the likes of us know about love?"
But Sive is as much, if not less, about a Cinderella figure trying to escape with her Prince Charming than an idiosyncratic insight into a frankly messed up community’s desire to assert, reassert, retain and maintain control and tradition. Short-term gain will likely amount to long-term pain for Thomasheen, Mena and even Seán Dóta, yet none of them appear to be aware of this. Only Mike is open to a change of heart, thanks mainly to Nanna's persuasive powers – but with Mena ruling him completely, will he really be able to change anything?
It is a scenario made compelling through stark, self-aware absurdity and irresistible intricacy, and is smoothed over by a pair of singing, meddling tinkers (Muiris Crowley and Frank O'Sullivan) whose tuneful revelations and decisive actions in the second act point towards a tragic outcome for everyone involved. Neither a comforting Kansas nor a colourful Oz rests at the end of the rainbow for Sive's Dorothy: instead, all that awaits is a bitterly black hole.
Sive runs at Belfast's Lyric Theatre until Saturday November 9 and will continue to tour Ireland until Saturday December 13. For more information, click here.