Finding comedy and love in the Big House

Aideen Wylde in Matched at The Everyman

Ger Fitzgibbon has given Chekov an Anglo-Irish twist for his new play, writes Jo Kerrigan

WE CAN’T seem to get enough of period drama, high life above and below stairs in another era — witness the popularity of Downton Abbey, for example. What we haven’t had for a long time is drama that focuses on the Irish country life of yesteryear.

It’s been too long since Somerville & Ross, since we celebrated the wonderfully crazy and captivating characters to be found in those crumbling Big Houses dotted around our rain-drenched landscape.

Now, however, that gap is being bridged with a new play at Everyman Cork. The work of Dr Ger Fitzgibbon, recently retired head of Drama & Theatre Studies at UCC, Matched is a light-hearted look at life and the pursuit of love in just such a Big House, set in the wide Tipperary hunting country around the 1900s.

Oddly enough, says Fitzgibbon, his inspiration for Matched came from an author more renowned for gloom and despair than comedy, Russia’s Anton Chekhov. “To be fair, Chekhov was hard done by in Stanislavski’s productions,” says Fitzgibbon.

“Plays like The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard were deliberately played in slow motion, which emphasised their negative side. If they’re taken at the right lick — some recent London ones did that — you don’t get that deep Russian gloom settling over everything.”

For his new play, however, Fitzgibbon turned not to the well-recognised works but to the lesser-known one-act comedies. “It had occurred to me that some of these — notably The Bear and The Proposal — would fit remarkably well into an Anglo-Irish setting, and in fact together would make a full-length play.”

He realised it would not do to modernise them too much. “They are so rooted in a past when women waited at home on small estates for suitors to pay court, when contracts were made, when life was more ruled by strong tradition.

But when I thought of Anglo Ireland of the 1900s, and the many minor estates descending slowly into rack and ruin, with fewer servants, peeling wallpaper, untended gardens, but always with hunting and dogs, suddenly they made complete sense. And that’s where I set Matched.”

The characters are not Downton Abbey, he emphasises. “They’re much more Somerville & Ross, a bit rackety and unpredictable and slightly crazy. They still have their history, but it’s decaying around them.”

The play’s full title is Matched: Everyman’s Guide to Affairs of the Heart, and love is certainly at the core of the action, however strangely it may manifest itself. A reluctant suitor is goaded to anger by slurs on his favourite dog. He retorts by pouring scorn on his inamorata’s pooch.

Some things are forgivable in 1900s Ireland but decrying prize animals is not. At another point, a fiery gentleman intent on retrieving a lost loan finds himself on the point of a duel — with a woman! Hardly the stuff of romance, but stranger things have happened.

As with the original Chekhov plays, these are unalloyed character comedies, exploring and exposing the foibles of human kind.

“It was the fun of the idea that attracted me,” says Fitzgibbon. Certainly the notion of setting his action in the Ascendancy twilight was inspirational. It’s another world, one still deeply engrained in our psyche.

Will we see further Big House comedies based on Chekhov? “Actually I have looked at that. A fun one is The Anniversary where the manager of a bank is writing a speech in praise of himself, to be delivered at the AGM — it maps out to modern Ireland perfectly!”

  • Matched runs at the Everyman from Wednesday to January 24


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