Big Maggie at The Gaiety Theatre

October 24, 2013

Irish theatre practitioners are prone to aping the stock public persona of the Irish male in staging’s of their work, amplifying the humorous facade and repressing the rare and bruised emotions that flow beneath. This is most apparent when they tackle the crowd-pleasing classics of the 20th century, a list John B Keane’s Big Maggie must surely feature high up in.

And it is very apparent that this is the approach that Druid has taken with this production, currently at the Gaiety Theatre. It’s fast paced and furiously funny, with each derisive comment not only making contact but leaving a mark. Aisling O’Sullivan’s titular performance should be studied for her ability to not only make you think and feel for her outwardly cruel and waspish character, but for her ability to italicize the intentions of her co-star’s parts (something many of them could not, themselves, articulate). But while you leave the theatre entertained – the playwright’s playful digs at our national psyche are, tragically, still apt – you can’t help but feel that this was a lost opportunity to look at our current predicament through this peephole to the past.

‘Big Maggie Polpin is a dab hand at breaking spirits’ as her four children each discover soon after the plays outset. With her husband not even fully in the ground she is keen to impress on the ‘strange litter’ he left behind that there is to be a short stop to their gallop. The farm, the house and the shop are all in her name. ‘You can blow anytime you like,’ she says, when they protest.

The sly humor and poetic language is chewed up and spat with venomous relish by O’Sullivan, her facial expressions and clipped right hook of a Kerry brogue adding gleeful bass to Keane’s full-bodied text.

As she plots against her children and perturbs their best laid plans she calcifies hatred in them for her. And in O’Sullivan’s glorious performance, embroidered with tiny but impeccable detail (that smirk!), you feel the tragedy that stems from her dogged belief that she is doing them good. “Nothing is too severe for what she will meet in this world,” she says after dishing another one of her harsh lessons. She is the perfect metaphor for the Catholic Ireland that grew, like mould, on the Free State.

She is also a representation of the Troika, with Charlie Murphy, as Maggie’s eldest daughter Katie, filling in for Kathleen Ni Houlihan. Forced by her own promiscuous actions into a marriage bed she cares not for, when faced with a choice between leaving the house a pauper or staying a slave, she acquiesces to her mothers austere measures.

Murphy lacks the gravitas to create sufficient tension with O’Sullivan, her performance being too modern, too of this time, to melt into Keane’s world. She is black and white, never bringing the wilting colour required as her precious freedom expires before her, her shrieks of outrage a poor substitute for genuine emotional collapse.

Fintan O’Toole once remarked that most of the supporting parts in Big Maggie are little more than cameos. Here they are more like victims in a horror flick, who shout, shriek and are supine before being dispatched by their matriarch. An excellent Sarah Greene and John Olohan are the only other performers who ever seem present.

Hynes reaches for the crowd-pleasing laugh too often, most ineffectively in Maggie’s seduction of Keith Duffy’s Teddy. The scene as written is a lusty, power play, dripping with sex, longing and manipulation. As staged it is uproariously funny, but false. Like all Lotharios, Teddy is smart and troubled. Here, he’s just a means to Maggie’s ends.

It remains a must see, if only as a companion piece to Laundry and The Blue Boy, two more recent productions which exposed the difficulty of motherhood and womanhood in that era. It’s condemnation of a nation resistant to change and its signposting of the ‘hand me down’ behavior modes that were such a bad fit are wrapped up in a character who symbolizes the struggle for and the consequence of freedom. O’Sullivan’s performative pow-wow, exposing the cracks in her brick like veneer, insures we know what of she speaks.


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