Theatre review: The Colleen Bawn at the Lyric Theatre Belfast

The Colleen Bawn

Written by Dion Boucicault
Director: Lisa May
Cast: Cavan Clarke, Jo Donnelly, Colette Lennon Dougal, Enda Kilroy, Patrick McBrearty, Bryan Quinn, Maeve Smyth
The Bruiser Theatre Company
The Lyric Theatre, Belfast
21 April 2018

It shouldn't be difficult to be aware of or recognise the historical importance of the 19th century playwright Dion Boucicault as one of Ireland's most successful dramatists, but you would find it hard to find a production of any of his works on the stage nowadays. You're likely to be more familiar with the 18th century playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, certainly at least his play The Rivals, than anything by Boucicault; the reason perhaps being that good comedy translates better to the modern stage than melodrama. How can one make a melodrama suitable for modern tastes without going the way of ironic reinterpretation? Well, Bruiser Theatre Company have a few ideas for their production of Boucicault's most famous work The Colleen Bawn, and they don't discount ironic reinterpretation either.

Director Lisa May and the Bruiser Company take a bit of a risk by playing up the 'Oirish-ness' of the melodrama to the level of comedy or parody, with back of the hand to brow and swooning mannerisms and an injection of diddle-di-dee music and song every now and again. It's hard to take seriously and not really in the spirit of the original. On the other hand, it does seem to be the only way to present the kind of romantic melodrama that you find in The Colleen Bawn and it does somehow get across the essence of the play and succeed even just in getting it in front of an audience, which is surely what matters most. The audience than then make of it what they will.

There may however be some justification for all the exaggerated mannerisms of shock, horror, bejaysus and begorrah, atall atall, double takes and confidential addresses to the audience. On the one hand The Colleen Bawn has all the character of a folk story honed by a master narrator, and indeed there is a
narrator to the story at the start of the play who interjects observations every now and again. Relating the events of this local drama to the clientele of a shibeen having a bit of a céile one dark and stormy night serves as a suitable framing device excuse for a larger than life story. And after all, it is indeed a grand old tale that draws you in and sweeps you along in its telling.

The story of the Colleen Bawn is indeed based on a real-life murder case that attains the proportions of near myth. A young man, Hardress Cregan is from a well-to-do family who have fallen on hard times. His mother, a widow, wants him to marry Anne Chute, a wealthy heiress, as she is in debt to the local magistrate Mr Corrigan, who will seize their estate if the arrears aren't paid. There's another option where Mrs Cregan can marry the dreadful Mr Corrigan, an option which might have to be considered seriously since, unbeknownst to his mother (it's a 'unbeknownst' kind of play) Hardress has secretly married a poor country girl on the other side of the lake, Eily O'Connor, the colleen bawn (the fair girl). His servant Danny suggests that he knows a way that he can be rid of the colleen bawn so that he can marry the colleen ruaidú (the red-head girl).

Inevitably, the story is rather more complicated than that and involves a fair amount of twists and misunderstandings, secret assignations and misplaced letters. Kyrle Daly, for example is also in love with Anne Chute and could be a valid rival for her affections, but Anne is led to believe that it is Kyrle and not Hardress who is secretly married to the colleen bawn. It's the kind of thing that you can only carry off with a great deal of spirit and brio, playing the situations to the hilt for all their inherent drama. It's certainly performed that way by an energetic cast who make every scene count, dredging up sentiments of surprise, revelation and unspoken implications that carry both a sense of deep foreboding with a sense of humour.

It's a risky gamble as every gesture is consequently broad and well-signaled with exaggerated mannerisms and pantomime whispered asides to the audience. Delivered in a rapid-fire manner it all seems rather silly at first, but as the drama develops it's clear that it's a wholly engaging method that permits you to take everything in; never allowing attention to flag for a second, eliminating any potential lapses or dull moments. Every one of the seven strong cast, doubling up on roles with rapid changes of swapping hats and shoving cushions up jackets, plays a musical instrument that further enlivens the proceedings. The set design is superb, in particular playing out the all-important murder scene on raging waters magnificently, showing a fine creativity that also establishes an old world folk quality appropriate for the subject and its locations, connecting it to old tradition, making it feel like a 'Whiskey in the Jar' folk song come to life. The Colleen Bawn proves to be a play worth making a song and dance about.

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