The Field @ The Olympia

February 4, 2011

It would appear that we Irish have become so enamored with taking the helping hands of our international neighbors that we are willing to do so without putting any thought into how best to use them. With the IMF bailout still ringing in our wallets the past twelve months has also seen Stockard Channing, Harris Yulin and Alan Rickman prop up the theatrical box office with much fanfare and varying results. Now Brian Dennehy’s in town taking on the Bull McCabe in Joe Dowling’s production of The Field at the Olympia Theatre. But just how much bang will you get for you buck seeing an American actor with an American accent playing one of the greatest-and most xenophobic roles in the Irish theatrical cannon?

With an actor of such renown you’d wonder why the producers didn’t put more forethought into the material they gave him. Productions of John B’s work are two a penny- and often worth as much. Why not give us an O’Neil, a Williams or an Odets? Instead they try and ram Dennehy into the role of the Bull McCabe and, while not a total disaster, it just doesn’t work.


With his American drawl in tact he renders the whole production meaningless as he rants to all who question the validity of his claim of the threat that outsiders represent, his point smothered by the accent that encases it (made all the more explicit by the fact the outsider in question, Stephen Hogan’s William Dee, is more like the rest than he). He has no grasp of the vernacular or even the gait of the Irish man and his Bull is often rambling and incoherent, lacking the requisite gruffness and ominous presence that makes him such an imposition on others. He mumbles and insulates his words so that they lose all music and meaning and his savage love for the land and his way of life is weakened by his urban erudition. The Bull acts out of instinct, but Dennehy is more cerebral, his well thought out character choices seeming as such, not the natural reaction of a brutal force of nature.  He never strikes you as the type of man whose “sweat boarded that land” or whose “dung manured that land” and he never convinces us that, while his means were wrong, his cause was just.


This is a story that should resonate with any Irish person. A foreign business buying up the land with plans to level it with concrete, paying no heed to local objections. A money-grubbing landowner trying to sell the land from underneath the workers whose hard graft made it what it was. A community divided with one law for the likes of us and one law for the likes of them. But since the Bull is played as a villain from the first till the last the fact that he has been wronged is lost in the manner he is portrayed in ,while the actions of the rest seem motivated by fear alone, not-self preservation, familial loyalty or fiscal necessity/ opportunity.


This is a beautifully structured play that has gained gravitas by the times we live in. An examination of small town cronyism, it is an elegy to the corrupting nature of power and possession. It is an exploration of the social divide that has fractured this country since its conception and provides an early snapshot of the small town politics that has ruined the state from its primary constituency-The Pub.


Like all John B Keane plays it is driven by deep-rooted passions, a sullied sexuality and a lingering wisp of violence but like many productions of his work here they play to the masses, never surprising, affecting or enlightening them. Note how the audience delectate at the manner in which a scene is presented, often breaking into spontaneous applause with seemingly no understanding for what has just gone on. It is a darkly comic piece but the humor should be in the absurdity or ghastliness of the characters plight, not in the actor’s expression.


There is no dramatic tension. Each line is preceded by a gaping pause sapping the requisite silences of their strength and slowing the pace of the performances to a crawl. A superfluous set design, though evocative, slows the pace down even further while our investment in the play is hampered by our inability to accept the cast as a real community.


It’s saved by the supporting performances. Derbhle Crotty is fantastic as the flirty yet embittered Maimie Flanagan, entering in a cloud of fag smoke and striking the perfect balance between protective mother and self-conscious provocateur. She longs for the new but is trapped by the small town mentality where “if you set your hair differently, they’ll talk about you, if you buy new clothes they stare at you and you’d need an armored car if you were to wear slacks.” With the slightest wave of her hand or rolling of her eyes she can bring the house down, but when faced with her own short comings she provides the play with an emotional centre to work from. The way she handles her Inquisition is both hilarious and heartbreaking, tripping the light fantastic between knowing what she’s doing is wrong and knowing it’s what needs be.


Her chaste, co- dependent relationship with The Bird (Brendon Conroy) is better realised than her rancorous relations with husband Mick (Eamon Hunt).  Hunt pays scant regard to his stage wife, treating her as if she were a stranger with no sign of the jealousy and passion which fueled the bateing’s and the babies. The Bird plays into her insecurities, and while Maimie’s no fool, she plays along, taking her only pleasure from The Bird’s pay it forward flirtations. They both show us they are aware of what the other is up to without ever overdoing said awareness.


Perhaps Garret Lombard plays the toughest role here. As Tadhg, he is pure bog, with a concrete, unmoving worldview handed down from his old dad. He is the son of The Bull McCabe and when Dennehy claims that “Tadhg’s children will be milking cows and keeping Donkey’s away from our ditches” long after the rest have gone, you don’t doubt him, It is a wonderfully realised performance. Physical, vocal, thorough.


As for the rest, well John Olohan rarely takes to a stage without making off with the scenery and what he doesn’t manage to take with him here as Dandy McCabe, his stage wife, Brid ni Neachtain swoops in and devours in a side-splittingly simplistic performance. In a role that signifies the more honest and open-minded Irish, change occurring from within, Gavin Fullam is perhaps a little shrill as Leamy Flanagan while his fellow purveyors of what’s right (and abstainers of alcohol) Sgt Leahy (Alan Archbold) and Father Murphy (Malcolm Adams) are suitably straight if a little flat. Rounding us off is Bosco Hogan, all voice as His Lordship, The Bishop.


It is always a pleasure to observe good writing, and The Field is most certainly that. And a solid supporting cast makes up for the staggered pacing and puffed up production. But in future, when bringing an actor of Dennehy’s stature to these shores, one wishes the producers would think more carefully about what he’s suited to.


Because it’s certainly not this.






13 of January till the 12 of February

Mon – Sat 8pm

Sat Matinees: 3pm

Special School’s matinees: 1pm Weds

Tickets from: €25 Booking fees may apply in person: From 100 Ticketmaster Outlets Nationwide

By Telephone (24 Hour): 0818 719 300


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