Big Maggie was always funny, subversive, and ahead of its time. John Olohan tells Padraic Killeen about Druid’s revival of its acclaimed production
FOLLOWING its original run in 2011, Druid Theatre Company’s celebrated production of John B Keane’s Big Maggie returns to the Gaiety Theatre this month for a short residency, and with most of the core cast intact.
Aisling O’Sullivan reprises her role as the fearsome matriarch, newly liberated upon the death of her husband. Keith Duffy returns as the smooth-talking playboy Teddy Heelin. And, beside them, the great John Olohan will also revive his splendid turn as Maggie’s cohort and suitor, Byrne, for which he won an Irish Theatre Award first time out.
In the hard-edged world of Keane’s play, Byrne is a rare beast — a fellow cute enough to mix it up with the play’s hard chaws, but at heart a very likeable, sympathetic fellow.
His prickly but affectionate relationship with the viperous Maggie helps to bring out the humanity in the latter, who elsewhere alienates those closest to her.
“I think Byrne and Maggie go back a while and they’re great mates,” says Olohan. “He’ll always be there for her and she knows that he’ll always be there for her. Also, their sense of humour is the same. They can slag each other off without getting upset about it.”
What distinguished the production first time around was the grit that director Garry Hynes infused into the 1969 play, which illuminated Keane’s subversive critique of late 1960s Irish society, while retaining the play’s provocative comic elements.
The balance between stark reality and ballsy comedy was initially difficult to achieve, however.
“When we rehearsed it originally, we had been trying to get to the nitty-gritty of the play and to keep it very real,” says Olohan.
“And then, I remember after the play’s first night, in the Town Hall in Galway, Garry came in to us and said ‘Listen, folks. When we go out on the stage tomorrow night, try to remember that this is a comedy’.”
Druid’s engagement with the plays of Keane in recent years has consolidated Keane’s place among the greats of modern Irish drama. As is well known, for many years the Kerry playwright’s work was dismissed by the snobs of the day as populist provincial fare. Significantly, Olohan was one of the actors involved in the first real critical re-evaluation of Keane’s work back in the 1980s when the Abbey Theatre staged a number of his finest plays.
“Ben Barnes directed a series of Abbey productions — Sive, The Field, and Big Maggie — and those seemed to give it a shove and some status,” says Olohan, who performed in each. “And John B Keane had been neglected. There’s no question at all about that.
“He was a fantastic writer. The further we get away from the time that the plays were written in, the more you realise how radical he was — all the things he was saying about women and sex, at a time when things like that weren’t even talked about.”
Olohan and his wife Catherine Byrne, who also performed in the Abbey plays, came to know John B Keane in the period.
“He was great,” says Olohan. “I remember when Catherine’s dad died, he appeared at the funeral. He had come up all the way from Listowel to attend. We were quite surprised that he had made the journey. He probably didn’t even know Catherine’s father, but that was the kind of man he was.”
The actor has fond memories of John B Keane’s wife, Mary, too, who passed away last year. When Druid’s tour of Big Maggie swept through Tralee in 2012, Mary and the Keane family threw a party for the cast and crew at the family pub in Listowel.
“They got poets and musicians in and sent cars to Tralee to bring us to Listowel,” says Olohan.
“We had a great night. And, of course, that was the last time I saw Mary Keane. We were there until three in the morning. They hired a minibus to bring us back and Mary put me on the bus. She gave me a big hug and said, ‘On you go’.”
Olohan himself stems from a pub background. His father ran a bar in his native Kells and, in fact, the actor’s earliest ‘performances’ took place in the bar itself.
“My father used to bring me down in the middle of the night and put me on the counter to sing ‘Irene, Goodnight’,” he recalls with laughter.
A career in performance seemed predestined, then, even if music — and not drama — was the young Olohan’s first love. In his late teens he started up the band, Toneage, with best friend Eamonn Carr. When they broke up, Carr would go on to form legendary Irish rock band Horslips, while Olohan found himself enrolled in the Abbey School of Acting, a ‘stop-gap’ between bands.
Olohan performed in numerous Abbey productions throughout the 1970s and 1980s before becoming a household name as Finbar in RTÉ’s Glenroe. After four decades in the business, his gift for performance has not dwindled, as was clear to anyone who saw the recent fly-on-the-wall documentary about Druid’s mammoth 2015 production, Druid Shakespeare.
Indeed, Olohan and Druid are a good fit. He is also full of admiration for Hynes. “She won’t let you away with anything,” he says. “Her ears will detect any phoniness, and she’d be on you like a light. She’d say, ‘No. I’m not happy with that. Come on. Rethink that out’.”
The emphasis that Druid places on acting as a vocation, meanwhile, is something that has inspired him.
“In rehearsals for Druid Shakespeare we spent the last four weeks together in the same block of apartments,” he says. “We had no family around us. It was like we were in a monastery. All we could think of was the Shakespeare. And it was very intensive work. We’d come in and run sections of a play on our own, without Garry being around. We lived, ate, and breathed it.”
Big Maggie runs at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, from January 29 to February 20. See www.druid.ie.
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