The occasion of the Dublin Theatre Festival’s 60th anniversary is a fitting setting for this Druid revival, of a play first staged at the festival in 1964, and to much acclaim.
Another of the new works that year, Philadelphia, Here I Come! has since enjoyed innumerable stagings, a sure place in the canon of Irish plays, and on the country’s school curriculums. The same cannot be said for Eugene McCabe’s effort, though it has been revived occasionally, including by Druid director Garry Hynes herself, in the 1980s.
McCabe’s play balances between rural realism and the mythic. The details of the harsh, meagre life on the unforgiving Ulster hills bear the hallmark of his own direct experiences as a farmer; but the story itself is worthy of a Greek tragedy.
The local big man, Scober MacAdam (a commanding Sean McGinley), is a rare success. Instead of moaning about how hard life is, he’s dragged himself up to busy prosperity. But he’ll have no heir, his impotence mocked by whispered taunts and innuendo (craftily worded by McCabe, and delivered in well marshalled ensemble scenes). So, as is his wont, he exercises his rare power, to buy, and hires a handsome journeyman (Ryan Donaldson) for an unusual, taboo-breaking job. He’s asked to impregnate MacAdam’s wife, Tressa (Seána
Hynes and her design team set the scene with a drab naturalism — a dull palette of browns and greys, as the men in Scober’s pay work the mill and get their feed. Amid the banter, Marty Rea’s Jemmy is the needling one, pushing Scober towards his ruinous “deal”.
As the action, set over one night, proceeds, Hynes’s pacing is unhurried, giving room for McGinley to find subtleties in a part that, for a lesser actor, might easily skew towards caricature.
Yet despite its Greek pretensions towards being a universal tale, it never quite transcends its time or place. The past is a different country, all right, and one already well served by the Irish canon.