Druid's revival of the Boucicault classic reminds us what is needed to pull out all the stops for the pronounced theatrical form: the Melodrama.
My review of The Colleen Bawn by Dion Boucicault coming up just as soon as I'm as broad in the back as the Gap of Dunloe ....
As the 19th century Irish theatrical tycoon Dion Boucicault rears his head again (his plays never sleep for very long) with a revival of The Colleen Bawn by director Garry Hynes for Druid, we are met once more with that pronounced theatrical form: the melodrama.
It was on the melodrama's stage of overblown emotions and eschewed naturalism that Irish theatre found a way to appease its ambiguous audience, composed of both Anglo and Gaelic Irish politics, whilst at the same time exploring political tensions and class oppositions. Now something of a historical form - prominent in the nineteenth century with conventions that endured throughout the twentieth - it's interesting to see how Hynes tries to play it.
A struggling Anglo Irish landlord named Hardress finds the fate of his land and that of his tyrant mother to lie in an arranged marriage to the wealthy heiress Anne Chute. However, Hardress has already secretly married the commoner who holds his heart - the melodious Colleen Bawn. Will true love prevail or be bumped off its course by home-brewed poitín and intercepted love letters?
A sugary moon sparkles over a confectionary set as the production's melodramatic devices rev into gear. A cello whirrs worriedly and a piano trounces its notes as if to connote: "DUN DUN DUN". Zealously amped is Rory Nolan as the play's rebel Irish man, Myles na Copleen, a misfit begotten of dispair rather than begorrahs. "I would like to see a law that can unseal the lips of a priest!", shouts John Olohan's clergyman at one point, with the cast then turning awkwardly to the audience; a clever steer by Hynes to a contemporary reference. The secret weapon here though is Aisling O'Sullivan as the regal Chute, whose delivery is as frank as a cannon.
The final act is led into pantomime with an unmerciful feat of self awareness prompting Marie Mullen to rushingly enact a costume change onstage. It gets the laughs, and leaves you to suspect that the production probably should have been conducted with this verve all along. The melodrama requires a special type of acting. The turns from Marty Rea and Aaron Monaghan evoke a jarring restraint as they try to mine their roles to illustrate psychologies and subtleties more in tune with naturalism. In melodrama, heightened registers work best.
Boucicault's plays don't go un-produced for very long, and they've become associated as sure-fire hits with the popular theatre as opposed to an art more innovative. This is an unfortunate oversight: the ending of The Colleen Bawn rounds off a parable of political conciliation - a conciliation very powerful in the minds of the the polarised social classes of the 19th century whose Boucicault's comedy famously united. Druid's production isn't as politically potent, and if anything is probably a fundraiser for their upcoming projects. It wasn't true love after all but after a song and swig of poitín you mightn't care.
What did everybody else think?