In recent years the Abbey has produced a couple of very popular Dion Boucicault revivals and this time around it’s the peerless Druid Theatre Company who are serving up a Christmas treat, staging the most famous of the Anglo-Irish writer’s melodramas, The Colleen Bawn. The show has just got underway in Galway’s Black Box Theatre and it will tour to venues nationwide in the new year.
When first staged in 1860 The Colleen Bawn took New York and London audiences by storm. In the Adelphi in London it ran for 330 nights consecutively, a feat previously unheard of. Queen Victoria was said to have attended it three times in a week. Its huge success only confirmed the Dublin-born dramatist’s status as one of the greatest theatre-makers of the Victorian age.
Boucicault took his inspiration from Gerald Griffin’s 1829 novel The Collegians. The latter was based on a horrific true story of a young bride murdered by her husband, an Irish gentleman, and his servant. In The Colleen Bawn, Boucicault stops short of staging the tragedy of the real story but beneath the thrilling plot, music, and racy comic stylings, the class tensions that informed the reality are self-evident.
In the play, Hardress Cregan is a noble man betrothed to a wealthy heiress, a match that would change the fortunes of the impoverished Cregan family. Secretly, however, Hardress has already married a poor peasant girl, Eily O’Connor, and thus finds himself in a fix. He confides his situation to his man-servant, Danny Mann, who takes off believing he’s been requested to remove Eily from the picture.
“It’s got everything,” says actor Rory Nolan, who plays the hero, Myles-na-Coppaleen. “There are beautiful women and dastardly villains. Myles is a horse dealer and a bit of a thief. He’s a rapscallion. So that makes him great fun to play. It’s the part that Boucicault would have written for himself, the one with all the scene-stealing lines. So there’s no pressure on me, then!”
Nolan needn’t fear. He’s the man for the job. He proved a brilliant Beamish MacCoul in the Abbey’s production of Boucicault’s Arrah-na-Pogue a few years back. In fact, in what has already been a distinguished career for such a young man, Nolan has always excelled in parts that were vivid and larger-than-life, the most striking being his turns in Peer Gynt and Improbable Frequencies.
Nolan’s character, Myles-na-Coppaleen, was Boucicault’s take on a ‘stage Irishman’, but with which the dramatist flouted convention, retaining the essential wildness of the persona but also making him the hero who is himself in love with ‘the colleen bawn’. It’s the full tapestry of characters, however, wedded to the intricate plotting and the stunning spectacle that Boucicault relished, which makes the play such an abiding favourite.
Famously, in the original production Boucicault had a lake built into the set for a sensational scene. Nolan doesn’t reveal how Druid director Garry Hynes is tackling such a tricky moment in the new production but he promises “stage magic”. He believes that modern audiences — in the era of movies and internet culture — are less bewitched by the kind of spectacle Boucicault once prided himself on providing.
“We are slightly desensitised to spectacle,” says Nolan. “But of course we all want stage magic and that’s what we’re striving to deliver. One of the lovely things about the show is that the plot does all the work for you. It’s all there — the melodrama and the fun and the song and the characters. These are characters who as soon as a thought enters their head it’s coming out of their mouths, and that in itself is just brilliant fun to play. So there’s a big emphasis on fun and craic.”
As in all of Boucicault’s Irish melodramas, however, beneath the craic there is also a more sincere depiction of the society and the politics of the Ireland of the playwright’s age.
“There is a core and a heart to this play,” agrees Nolan. “There are class tensions and it deals with love across the divide. And even while it wouldn’t be as nationalistic as Arrah-na-Pogue or The Shaughran, that sentiment is still there too. He called The Colleen Bawn ‘the first Irish national drama’. Now, Boucicault was probably the greatest self-promoter the stage has ever seen, but at the same time his claim is true. He was showing Irish people in a play set in Ireland about things that were intrinsically Irish. Let’s not forget that in Arrah-na-Pogue he had a character singing ‘The Wearing of the Green’ on the stage in London and in New York. That could have been seen as incendiary. This was a song that people were hung for singing back in 1798.”
This is Nolan’s first play for Druid since he was made an honorary artist-in-association with the company, part of ‘Druids’, a permanent ensemble of actors that also includes Marie Mullen, Aaron Monaghan, Marty Rea, Maelíosa Stafford and Garrett Lombard. The ensemble will be central to the company’s ambitious plans over the next three years and all five were involved in the recent revival of a number of Tom Murphy plays.
“What’s lovely is that we can all walk in to a room and we don’t have to go through some of the initial things that actors might normally have to do in a new ensemble. Being an associate artist, or a ‘Druid’ as we’re called, is highly flattering. It’s really lovely to be asked to work so closely with a company that has excelled in everything they’ve done.”
Among the projects ahead is Mark O’Rowe’s engagement with Shakespeare’s Henriad, a series of plays comprising of Richard III, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V. Tantalisingly, there is also a new play, Brigit, by Tom Murphy promised for 2014. Will Nolan be appearing in this? “Well, Tom has said that Brigit is like a prequel to Bailegangaire, so we’re all waiting with bated breath to see it. Whatever about being in it, I just can’t wait to see it.”