The Clinic star Aisling O’Sullivan stars as the titular monstrous matriarch in Druid’s production of John B Keane’s abrasive comedy-drama.
John B Keane’s 1969 play is remarkably explicit in its dissection of how ecclesiastical attitudes to sexuality were a rather useful enabler to the snuffing out of any romantic machinations that didn’t also satisfy cravings for social climbing thru land acquisition. Maggie opens the play smoking by an empty hearse rather than watch her husband be buried. A lengthy and tense scene in the family home sees her reveal that he had signed over to her all rights to money, house, shop and farm. She means to dominate now, and the children will get nothing unless they toe the line. Mick, the eldest son promised ½ the farm by his father, immediately leaves for England. Maurice is strung along with the promise that he might be allowed to marry and have the farm, if he waits. Maggie chillingly notes that he’s only 24, and his father (in this deranged society) was considered very young to be married at 35. Gert and Katie are to swap working in kitchen and shop as punishment for Katie being the father’s favourite.
Maggie’s determination to exercise absolute authority powers the resolution of this family struggle over four shocking scenes. Charlie Murphy is impressively haughty and saucy but also fragile as Katie, the eldest daughter who it’s implied might have had an incestuous relationship with the dead patriarch. The only member of the family who can land a verbal blow on Maggie, she is nevertheless forced into a loveless marriage by her mother for the sake of money and respectability. Sarah Greene is wonderfully jejune as Gert, the youngest daughter who is shocked by Katie’s early revelations but grows up quickly under the harsh tutelage of her mother’s cruelty in stifling her love life. John Olohan is again a terrifically funny presence as the monumental sculptor Byrne. He’s gifted the filthiest gags in the play as well as both delivering and receiving tremendously vicious putdowns in his flirtatious bantering with Maggie. Director Garry Hynes’s stunt-casting gamble pays off as Keith Duffy is surprisingly good as the playboy commercial traveller, trading on his boy-band looks and matinee idol romantic posturing to good comedic effect.
The bleak ending is both a quasi-reversal of Riders to the Sea, and, as Fiachra MacNamara pointed out to me, almost a nod towards Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. Aisling O’Sullivan does a good Kerry accent and delivers biting lines with relish, but she has rarely made any of her characters particularly likeable, and it’s tempting to ask if Maggie’s motivations might have seemed more convincing with a different actress in the role. Would another actress have made Maggie’s marrying off of Katie, despite her complaints about the misery of her own marriage for the sake of financial security, seem tragic in its complicity with a hated socio-economic system rather than merely hypocritical? Despite the quality of the acting and sharpness of the writing this play becomes quite draining because of the sheer selfishness of Maggie, which appears in her final espousal of her ‘zero-sum world’ philosophy; a philosophy which she fails to note is contradicted by the continued support and affection her exiled children still afford each other, but will now justly deny to her…
Nevertheless this is a strong production of a play whose existence challenges the conventional wisdom about our recent past.
Big Maggie is on a nationwide tour, ending with its return to the Gaiety in February.