Margaret Dillon, for whom playing the role of Sive remains a defining moment in her life. Picture: Nick Bradshaw
MARGARET Dillon, who now lives in Dublin, played the central character of Sive in the very first production of John B Keane’s first play. The passage of decades has not dulled her memories of the effect it had on her and on the lives of everyone who was part of it.
“I had only acted in school plays. There was no real experience of acting for the general public up to that,” she recalls.
“I remember being quite nervous to find myself part of the Listowel Drama Group. It was a great experience for me. Even though they were mostly in their 20s, everyone seemed so much older and more adult that me.”
There was, she recalls, an air of expectation around Sive right from the first rehearsals, and the hopes it could become something bigger than a well received local effort.
“Even though I was very young, I do remember there being a general feeling within the cast that Sive was something very different, with real possibilities. There were things about Sive that were very unusual in those days, like having what were then called tinkers and musical instruments like the bodhrán as part of the production.”
John B attended many of the rehearsals, a presence Margaret recalled as easy-going and humorous: “He was there a great deal, and always gave the impression of having great confidence in the cast and the way the play was developing.
“He was such a friendly and approachable person to everyone, even though he must have been so concerned to get this, his first real foray into theatre, just right.
“I never remember any disharmony in the preparations. John B was just as funny in private as he was in public, which is such a rare thing.”
First-night nerves abounded for the play’s opening in Listowel — especially for the 16-year-old schoolgirl at the centre of the story. “I suppose when you’re young you don’t pause to consider things that could go wrong, which perhaps was no bad thing for me on the night,” Margaret smiles.
“But there was a great reaction right from the start, people really loved the play and made it a topic of conversation.”
As it toured the many small villages and towns, Sive ironed out its staging wrinkles — a process often helped by fulsome audience participation: “I particularly recall Ballyduff and the scene where the daughter-in-law and mother have a particularly robust argument — suddenly a voice from the back of the hall shouted ‘Leave ’em at it!’ which, of course, brought the house down.”
On another occasion in Abbeyfeale, she recalls the unwelcome arrival of a rat across the stage just minutes before the curtain went up: “There we were, many of us perched on stools, while a stage hand chased the creature around the hall with a broom, and the early arrivals already starting to queue outside the door. It was a good test of our calm under pressure.”
The winning night in Athlone remains one of Margaret Dillon’s most cherished theatrical memories, all the more so because she was so young. “I dreamed my way through that night, really. We were all in a daze, I suppose, to have finally reached the top and achieved the ultimate honour.”
Another first was to follow when the press came calling. “I remember being taken out of the school during evening study to have my picture taken and talk with a reporter, that really was the icing on the cake,” she says.
Later that summer, Sive went to The Abbey for a sell-out run — an occasion Margaret recalls as being far less terrifying than expected. “Of course the idea of treading on that famous stage was huge for all of us in the play, we were all nervous.”
However, the support of Kerry folk for Sive’s first foray upon the national stage ensured a familiar evening for all concerned.
“Standing there and looking out across that sea of faces, it was like being in my home town — I knew practically everyone in the theatre,” she smiles.
“The play was incredibly well supported by Kerry people from far and wide. It was an amazing week.”
Danny Hannon, a lifelong friend of John B’s, and producer with local drama group Lartigue Theatre Company, credits the play’s popularity to its universal themes: “Sive is so rich in characterisation, dialogue, and idiom that it reached out beyond the world of art and literature to touch the hearts and minds of all who experienced it,” he says.
After that momentous summer, the 16-year old Margaret Dillon reluctantly returned to school and the routine of normal life.
“After secondary school, I did some acting during my teacher training with the Teacher’s Club drama group,” Margaret recalls. “Later on, I joined another drama group that John B’s brother Dennis had started. But when I eventually emigrated to Canada, that pretty much marked the end of my acting life.
“Sive was a special play for all sorts of reasons, not least of getting John B the attention as a playwright that was so much his due. For myself, it remains one of the most cherished memories of my youth,” she smiles.
The first cast of Sive, with young Margaret Dillon in the title role.
John B Keane’s first play, Sive, was initially rejected by the Abbey Theatre. The Listowel Drama Group produced it in February 1959 in Walsh’s Ballroom in the town. Directed by Brendan Carroll, it featured Nora Relihan, John Cahill and Brian Brennan, with Margaret Dillon as Sive. The play was received with such enthusiasm that the producers decided to take it out on the amateur drama circuit. Sive went on to win the All-Ireland Drama Festival in Athlone. It was such a critical and popular success that the Abbey relented, inviting the group to perform it to Dublin. The Abbey’s own theatre had been damaged in a fire, but it hosted Sive on the temporary national stage at the old Queen’s Theatre in Dublin. Sive was finally performed on the Abbey stage in 1985.
— Marc O’Sullivan, Arts Editor