Keane edge is still sharp with John B's ’Sive’

The Abbey’s touring production of Sive underlines its timeless themes of greed and lust, says Colette Sheridan.


ALTHOUGH written in oppressive 1950s Ireland, John B Keane’s Sive – the play that heralded an exciting new voice in Irish theatre – still ha s resonance, says Conall Morrison, director of the Abbey’s touring production of the riveting drama.

Morrison says that while it has its own historical specificity, the play is about the timeless themes of greed and lust and of conflict within a family and the abuse of power. “As John B Keane so often did with plays like The Field and Big Maggie, he succeeded in putting his finger on the dark underbelly of Irish society,” says Morrison.

Sive is the story of a beautiful young woman who is being matched with a rich elderly man. Her guardians are set to benefit from a generous dowry. “She is effectively being sold for sex. The people in power are using this young vulnerable person for their own ends. Sadly, we know all too much about that going on in this country.”

Morrison says the play indicts what was happening at the time and has relevance throughout the twentieth century and beyond. “Sive’s guardians are supposed to be looking after her but turn out to be abusive. It’s a rattling good story, told wonderfully, with incredibly vivid characters that audiences engage with.” ABSOLUTE DELIGHT Since the Abbey’s earlier run of this play at the beginning of the year, there have been some cast changes, including the addition of Derry Power as Seán Dóta.

“Derry first acted in the Abbey about 50 years ago. Having an actor of his experience and stature is an absolute delight,” says Morrison.

Morrison says that the cast changes affect the dynamic in a positive way. “It’s incredibly refreshing because when you’re reviving a play for a tour, with the best will in the world, working with the same cast means that they know exactly how it all works. But by having three new cast members, you’ve got to go back on your journey and ask and answer every question you can about the play. It’s like a new injection of blood. It has made us re-examine everything we did in the first rehearsal period and we can see what we’ve learned from the first run.”

Morrison’s approach to directing is informed by the belief that the best idea wins. “I’m there to be the arbiter or the editor of the collective imagination. I need everyone to chip in. If you don’t allow that to happen, it would be like setting out a series of puppets on the stage. Actors need to know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it in order to fully believe in the play. If they don’t understand it, they’ll just do what I tell them to do. And while you might get a few performances out of that, the lack of understanding will be self evident on the stage and it will fall apart during the run.”

Having played in Belfast’s Lyric Theatre as part of the tour, Morrison says he was curious to see how the far north east would respond to a play from the far south west of Ireland. “But they’ve been gobbling it up,” he says. And, adds Morrison, Sive is not just for an older crowd that one might imagine constitutes the audience for John B Keane.

“There are young people in the audiences. They connect with Sive and the love story between her and Liam Scuab and how they’re controlled by the older generation. A good story, well told, will grip everybody and is down to the characters. I love working on it. My admiration for the play has grown and grown.” THEY’RE THEIR OWN MEN Asked if he would rank John B Keane alongside Brian Friel and Tom Murphy, Morrison says that Keane is a different kind of creature. “I never get involved in that question. Part of these writers’ genius is that they’re very different. They’re their own men.”

Sive was famously turned down by the Abbey in 1959. It premiered in Walsh’s Hall in Listowel. Word of the ground-breaking play reached theatrical circles in Cork. On June 29, 1959, the Southern Theatre Group staged Sive at the Father Matthew Hall in the city. It ran for six weeks that summer and the production was subsequently referred to in Cork thespian circles as “the summer of Sive”.

The Abbey later made restitution by inviting the play up to the national theatre. Morrison says that it was the first time an amateur company performed at the Abbey for a week.

“The story is so apocalyptic and so epic that it’s as if the Abbey pulled back from it initially because they didn’t quite know what to make of it. As well as that, there might have been a bit of snobbery. The play came from this Kerry pub owner. They didn’t quite trust it or know what it was. It was just too strong a piece of meat.” BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME Twenty-three year old Róisín O’Neill, from Ballincollig, Co Cork, is playing the role of Sive.

She is proud to be bringing it all back home. “Sive really started in Cork,” says O’Neill. “It’s great to be bringing it to the Everyman where I would have done end-of-ear shows with CADA Performing Arts. A lot of actresses were seen for the role. Being young was to my advantage.”

The UCC graduate of drama and theatre studies has totally immersed herself in the iconic role.

“There’s so much stuff going on in the story. So much of it is out of Sive’s control. She doesn’t fully know what’s going on. She has this innocence which I try to preserve. She is really nice, energetic, enthusiastic and full of hope at the start of the play.

“But as it progresses, her eyes are opened. She becomes much more searching and she ends up being resigned to her fate. I identify with the role because Sive is young and in love. She sticks up for people as well. And she’s full of possibility.

“I’m a forward thinking person. I always think there’s loads of possibility. You reach Sive’s age – 18 – and you go from being a child to adult, learning things along the way.”

O’Neill describes the play as being an epic show that’s like a Greek tragedy. “This production is like a pantomime at times because the audiences are so vocal, shouting and jumping out of their seats. During the letter scene, people go ‘Oh no.’”

Clearly, Conall Morrison’s version of Sive ticks all the boxes.

  • Sive is at Everyman Cork from Nov 25-29; Town Hall Theatre, Galway, Dec 2-6; and Wexford Opera House, Dec 11-13.


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