Written by Dion Boucicault
Director: Clare Maguire
Cast: Juliette Crosbie, Martha Dunlea, David Fennelly, Martha Grant, Aron Hegarty, Liam Heslin, David O’Meara, Deirdre Monaghan, Jack Mullarkey
Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin
4 August 2018
Like any good writer of melodrama, the 19th century Irish dramatist Dion Boucicault makes use of a few familiar devices, reworking them to new situations for the delight and entertainment of the audience, but also as a means to bring out certain characteristics that emphasise the nature of the people and the situations in Ireland. Those are of course very much related to the period, but Smock Alley’s production of Boucicault’s 1874 runaway New York success The Shaughraun seeks to find some contemporary resonance in Ireland’s renewed difficulties with their neighbours across the Irish Sea brought about by the impending Brexit crisis.
Like The Colleen Bawn, produced recently at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, there’s a devious crooked magistrate who is the root of all or most of the problems, threatening to have a once proud family evicted from their ancestral home. He of course is collaborating or working at the behest of the governing English authorities. If you want, you could see this in a wider context as a metaphor for the Irish people living under the yoke of English occupation, but that doesn’t need to be overstated. What matters for the moment is finding an accommodation that allows the people of the land to live with the situation and find a way of restoring their pride.
Surprisingly, or maybe not since it’s principal aim is entertainment, The Shaughran is not a revolutionary or rebel work. In fact, the young English captain Molineaux may be frequently mocked and outsmarted by the wily Irish inhabitants of Co. Sligo, but he is not regarded as a villain by any means. In fact, he falls in love with one of the young Irish women here, Claire Ffolliott, and proves to be both gallant and honest in his intentions towards her, as well as with the people in general, acting with a sense of honour, trusting in the characteristics that become the key aspect of The Shaughraun – faith, hope and love.
The people you can’t trust are the two-faced ones. Magistrate Corry Kinchela has schemed with informer Harry Duff to have Arte O’Neil’s fiance Robert Ffolliott charged as a Fenian rebel and deported to Australia. The once grand Ffolliott estate has accordingly been seized by the authorities, with Arte and Clare, the sister of Robert, left to reside in an nearby shack in much reduced circumstances. Kinchela even wants to run them out of that humble abode and has already taken measures to ensure that they fall into ruin, but he’s willing to make concessions if Arte will forget about her deported fiance and marry him instead.
The plot is a complicated one involving a series of twists of fate and dastardly scheming, but essentially it centres on the fate of Robert Ffolliott. Robert has escaped and made his way back to Sligo with the assistance of Conn, the Shaughraun (a wanderer and poacher living off the land). Captain Molineaux, unaware of the pardon and in love with Robert’s sister Claire, is reluctant to carry out his duty to apprehend the escaped convict (in a dodgy disguise), but to save all parties trouble, Robert hands himself in. This is not good news to the magistrate Kinchela, because, unknown to anyone else Robert has been pardoned, but the pardon won’t apply if Robert is a fugitive. It’s in his interest then to see Robert escape again, and wouldn’t it be terrible if he was shot while trying to evade justice…?
There are inevitably a lot more twists and turns that keep the drama moving along dramatically. In many respects, the whole nature of the work is an attempt to associate this dynamic and character with the nature of the Irish that is so bewildering to the English Captain Molineaux, and it’s embodied above all in Conn, the Shaughraun. What matters as far as people are concerned, Irish and English alike, is not allegiance to a cause or the crown, but to those basic principles of decency that allow them to live side-by-side. As far as application to the present day goes, it’s not difficult to see the same principles applying, nor is it difficult to see where the real problems might lie; namely in those with no allegiance to anything other than putting money in their pockets.
That doesn’t need any additional emphasis in a Dion Boucicault melodrama, which has incident and implication enough. The pacy Smock Alley production in Dublin directed by Clare Maguire remains set in a romanticised ideal of old Ireland, a dramatic construct rather than any misguided attempt to place Boucicault’s world in any kind of realistic setting of the past, or indeed attempt to make any clever contemporary references. The production makes good use of its setting in the Smock Alley Theatre, opened in 1662, the first theatre in Dublin, and plays with the essential tone and the humour of the work, but Ger Clancy’s sets are also wonderfully inventive and adjustable to suit the narrative demands of the action and the winding cliff paths for the dramatic conclusion. Funny how all the talk is of cliff-edges again…
Like the Bruiser Theatre’s The Colleen Bawn, the cast use declamation – although not quite as exaggerated – to get over the more archaic theatrical exclamations and through the melodramatic twists, but it helps that The Shaughraun is not without humour and a sense of its own absurdity – all of it in service of a deeper cause. Little musical interludes and summarisations are there again and fitted in like a folk-song in the making, integrated well by the director and the performances of the cast here. Some overplaying is acceptable, particularly in the case of Kinchela’s pantomime villainy which is played with relish by Aron Hegarty. David Fennelly’s Captain Molineaux is charming and charmed by this strange world, which is embodied above all in the nature of Liam Heslin’s irrepressible Conn the Shaughraun. You could even say The Shaughraun is the essential characteristic of Boucicault’s play itself; wildly unpredictable, charming and irresistible, and not to be written off too quickly as dead.
The Shaughraun by Dion Boucicault is playing at the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin until 1st September 2018.
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