The Gaiety, Dublin
My review of Big Maggie by John B. Keane coming up just as soon as I find Molly Gibbons’s grave ...
In the first act of Keane’s play, Maggie Polpin, upon learning of her sexual relationship with a married man, slaps her daughter Katie hard across the face and drags her along the ground by her hair. She then remarks that she had perceived of Katie as more of a woman but now realises she’s still a child. It’s a moment that makes us ponder what constitutes being a progressive ‘woman’ in the harsh logistical realities of Maggie’s ‘Ireland’.
It is the day of Walter Polpin’s funeral, and no widow’s tears are spent as Maggie, coldly and professionally, arranges a tombstone and an epitaph (etched with sentimentality to spare). Then it’s off to open the family shop. For Maggie this is freedom, the opportunity to exercise her consumer expertise and social agency as she always wished but couldn’t whilst married to that “hard” man. If the severity of her actions are to be accounted for by his harsh treatment of her in the past then Walter Polpin’s shadow is to extend long and dark across this story.
Aisling O’Sullivan casts her Maggie in stone, wielding a vicious delivery, Kerry-thick and rampant like a boulder rolling down Carrauntuohil. Her smiles are rare, mostly found behind the shop counter, the relished success at the trade more valuable than the contents of the till. Just as rare are the glimpses of fear we see when she senses her entrapments of her children coming loose. Garry Hynes does well to prompt these subtleties in her direction (*), while Francis O’Connor’s Warhol-inspired set, in its symmetrical wiring and classic brandings, invites us to deconstruct this socio-economic history of the Irish domestic sphere. Charlie Murphy (as proven in the Abbey’s Pygmalion earlier this year) can also go feral, her sharp-tongued Katie the main resistance fighter to Maggie’s iron rule, while the innocence of sweet Sarah Greene’s Gert calls Maggie’s credentials into question (**).
(*) Does anyone else sense that Hynes’s vision is less dominant here than in her previous work? Her direction feels very subtle and the scale of the set seems more scaled back than in other Druid shows. It serves the play well, though. I may just about forgive her for the cryptic humdrum and drabble that was ‘Testament’.
(**) Sarah Greene has a pretty cool resumé. As well as previous work with Druid (including Keane’s ‘The Year of the Hiker’) and Rough Magic’s recent ‘Phaedra’ and ‘Peer Gynt’, she performed in Randolph SD’s original musical ‘Ellemenope Jones’. You will also see her playing the titular role in THISISPOPBABY’s musical ‘Alice In Funderland’ in the Abbey in Spring. I’ve only seen her in supporting roles so I really look forward to seeing her in the spotlight.
Keane’s play was originally received on a controversial note in 1969. Women’s rights were still being campaigned for, and the playwright was presenting to patriarchal audiences scenes in which a single woman was managing family affairs and assuming control over land and business despite the contestations of her sons. As detailed in the programming note, in this underdeveloped period of legislation, to get married as a woman was to enter a state of “civil death”. Her legal existence was dependent on her husband’s, and if she were to leave him she would forfeit rights such as access to the family home and to her children. Maggie is established as incredibly competent in legal and economic negotiations of power, and as she sits Katie down and tidies her hair after her outburst, it comes to our attention that she is grooming a generation of woman that will inherit similar power.
Keane may be pre-charting the development of equality in economic and legal rank for the Irish female, however, can this portrayal contribute to such a campaign? Under Maggie’s authority, her family are miserable. Katie is made to marry a man she doesn’t love (though his fortune has its perks) while Maurice is not allowed to marry the woman he loves (because of her lack of fortune). Both he and Mick are crushed that after all that they dedicated to the farm that it won’t fall in either’s hands, thus robbing them of any livelihood independent of Maggie’s authority. And poor Gert, on the receiving end of her mother’s cruel manipulation to wade her off playboy Teddy Heelin (***). Maggie is well skilled in the art of entrapment, and for whatever outcomes she’s trying to impose on her children’s lives, her efforts are ultimately to ensure the economic and social sufficiency of her family.
(***) So, what did people think of Keith Duffy as smooth-talking Teddy Heelin? I actually thought he did alright.
Big Maggie is unsympathetically clever, hilariously tactless and also occasionally moving. Its moral ground is tricky, as it usually is when lineage intertwines with property. Are we to side with a youthful generation unable to claim independence in marriage and profession, or with the woman who has lived her life oppressed by societal institutions? Either way, there is an unequal and superficial society at display here. To be maternal is to sacrifice kinship for economic and social sustainability. In this regard, Maggie Polpin can be viewed as the property-obsessed capitalism of Ireland in its most aggressive form, turning away family for the sake of prosperity, and that message certainly has powerful resonance in today’s Ireland.
Gert and Maggie at the cemetery:
GERT: “He was no saint but he was my father. (rebelliously) I'm going over to the grave.”
MAGGIE: “(vehemently) You will stay where you are, or I'll give you a smack across the puss! I want no more talk out of you now! I have enough to contend with without my youngest wanting to desert me in my hour of need.”
Maggie on Byrne’s patient calculating of the pricing of the tombstone:
MAGGIE: “In the honour of God hurry up! ’Tisn't a supermarket we're putting over him!”
Maggie on Katie’s mourning:
MAGGIE: “In the honour of God dry your eyes and don't be making a show of yourself!”
KATIE: “I'm entitled to cry when my father is dead.”
GERT: “Maybe now that he's out of the way we might turn into some sort of a family again.”
KATIE: “That's a terrible thing to say!”
Maurice doubting Walter’s infidelity:
MAURICE: “Can you be sure?”
KATIE: “Look! I saw Moll Sonders running down the stairs in her birthday suit and my mother after her. Is that enough for you?”
Neighbours paying respects to Maggie:
MAGGIE: “Nellie Riordan at the door dragging three kids and a pram full of potatoes. Came to pay her respects. She'd pray for the deceased and say the stations – which would take her a lot less time than she kept me at the door.”
Gert and Byrne on Teddy:
GERT: “Oh, go on out o’ that! Everyone knows he's a ladies’ man! They say he has more sex appeal than any other two travellers.”
BYRNE: “That's no bad mark against him. I could use a bit of it myself.”
Maggie being honest with Teddy:
MAGGIE: “I think we know each other. At least I know a good deal about you. I know for instance, that you're no cock virgin with innocent dreams of romance.”
Maggie being honest with Teddy (after kissing him):
MAGGIE: “You're so uncomplicated.”
Maggie to Katie on the unpopularity of breast-feeding:
MAGGIE: “There's no nature in children since they stopped the breast feeding. Women these days don't seem to know what tits are for. In my day every child was fed from the breast.”
KATIE: “Well, if you were fed from the breast, mother mine, it didn't give you much nature.”
What did everybody else think?