John B Keane’s play Sive was famously produced by Listowel Drama Group in 1959, after its rejection by the Abbey Theatre. When Sive swept the boards at the All-Ireland Amateur Drama Festival that year, the Abbey relented, inviting the Listowel players onto the national stage for a week in May.
Much of the beauty of Keane’s writing lay in his use of the vernacular. But this has been parodied so often that the problem for any contemporary production is how to do the accents. Under Conall Morrison’s direction, the current cast mostly manage well.
Sive is a beautifully plotted piece of theatre. From its initial set-up — the matchmaker Thomasheen Sean Rua suggests to Mena Glavin that they marry her orphaned niece to the rich old farmer, Seán Dóta — to its awful denouement, the play is classic tragedy.
Each character — Mena’s husband, the fretful, indecisive Michael, his mother, Nanna, the innocent Sive, and her admirer, Liam Scuab — seems crucial to the plot.
William Shakespeare himself could not have invented the mischievous tinkers, who seem a diversion at first but are later revealed to be essential to the story.
If the play has a single message, it is the denouncement of greed. Seán Dóta has promised Thomasheen £100, and the Glavins £200, if they can bully Sive into marrying him. This indecent proposal becomes the talk of the parish: what is never stated outright, but is alluded to, is that the priest is happy to collude in the transaction by marrying the couple. Stated baldly, the Church has approved the sale of a young girl as a sex object.
For all the darkness of his vision, Keane also celebrates human decency, as exemplified by the likeable Liam and the tinkers, Pats Bocock and Carthalawn, whose every appearance on stage drew wild cheers during the play’s first production at the Abbey.
Keane’s delight in the language of his people is palpable. He revels in the black hatred between Mena and Nanna. Mike bears the brunt of it: Mena refers to his mother as “the auld devil screeching in the corner,” while Nanna later describes Mena as “the hungry sow that sleeps with you, that pauperised wretch you call a wife.”
It could be argued that Sive has little relevance for contemporary Ireland, where we’d like to imagine that young girls are no longer forced into bondage.
Try telling that to the ‘mail order brides’, the sex workers and those who subsist on slave wages — we really haven’t come that far at all.