I went to see an excellent production of Sive in the Gaiety Theatre recently. Written by John B Keane in the 1950s, it tells the story of a teenage girl who is sold into marriage with a much older, albeit wealthy man, and is one of my favourite plays, writes Louise O’Neill.
I first saw it as a child in 1994, in St Mary’s Hall in Rossmore as part of the Kilmeen Drama festival. I remember sitting on the one of the long, wooden benches at the front with all the other children, packets of Taytos in hand, staring at the stage in shock at the story that was unfolding before me. I’ve seen Sive multiple times since, but the production in the Gaiety was the first time that I had heard an audience find the play so hilariously funny.
They were almost giddy, something I found jarring as Sive has been seared into my brain as a deeply disturbing piece of theatre.
Yes, there are flashes of dark humour in order to break the tension, but it is still a story about a desperate child bride who is driven to suicide. Hearing people laugh heartily when Sive describes Sean Dota’s attempts to assault her made me deeply uncomfortable. I’ve always expected a play like Sive to be treated with respect, rather than seen as a bawdy farce. And Sive does deserve to be treated with respect.
There is so much to unpick within the narrative, not least the way that John B explores the narrow roles that women are expected to fit into in order to survive. Nanna is the old crone by the fire, dismissed and belittled because of her age.
Mena, the daughter-in-law, is not a spinster, of course, but it is hinted that she is either barren or cannot satisfy her husband sexually. And then there is young Sive, the sacrificial virgin, her beauty a currency that she does not wish to cash in.
It’s fascinating to see how John B portrays gendered expectations around female behaviour, and quite pointedly explores the intersection between money and freedom, particularly for women.
Virginia Woolf was discussing the importance of having A Room of One’s Own in 1929, and in Sive, it is clear that having money of one’s own is equally essential.
When women are dependent on the men in their lives, from their fathers to their husbands, to provide for them, it is clear that those women are often driven to make bad decisions. I felt sympathy for Mena (brilliantly portrayed by Andrea Irvine), and could see her as a complicated, complex woman who has so few choices because she has so little financial freedom.
Her latent anger is palpable, and it made me think of all those other women in 1950s Ireland who were trapped by circumstances, seething in silence. Her bartering of Sive in exchange for £200 is reprehensible, but it’s telling that the blame is laid at Mena’s feet for Sive’s suicide, despite her husband’s feeble acquiescence to the plan, Thomasheen Seán Rua’s complicity in making the initial match, and Seán Dota’s lustful greed for the young girl.
While Sive has been performed continuously since its first showing in March 1959, it seems prescient of the Druid production company to choose to re-create it for 2018.
Women are still encouraged to ‘marry well’, to make a good match, the implicit suggestion being that we need to depend on a man to take care of us. Given the gender pay gap, and the fact women are often encouraged into professions that (criminally, in my opinion) pay a great deal less, such as teaching and nursing, perhaps this is not surprising.
And in the wake of the #MeToo movement and conversations around female sexuality, the objectification of the female body, and consent, Sive feels more relevant than ever. At the Gaiety that night, I thought of all the Irish women who had come before me, the women who had their bodies policed and controlled as they were told how they should behave; how they should exist in this world in the name of all that is holy and pious. My heart ached for all the Sives whose stories will never be told.
The girls pushed into marriages with ‘suitable’ men whom they did not love. The girls punished for having sex outside of marriage, cast out of polite society and branded indecent. The horrors inflicted upon the women thrown in the Magdalene laundries and the Mother and Baby homes, their babies ripped away from them as soon as they drew their first breath. And then I thought of this Modern Ireland, where an audience could sit and laugh hysterically at a play like Sive, when the eighth amendment still holds a place in our Constitution, forcing 12 women a day leave this shores so they can exercise bodily autonomy. Sive is about freedom, and the right to make choices about your own life, your own body, your own future.
How can we say we are free when we do not have the right to choose?
READ: Please forgive the flagrant self-promotion here, but my third novel, Almost Love, is out now. It’s about obsession, love addiction, and the damage we inflict upon ourselves in the name of romance. I’m very proud of it and I hope you enjoy it too.
GO: Irene Kelleher’s one woman show, Mary and Me, is at the Everyman from March 6 to 8. It’s a sharp, often very funny portrait of Ireland in the 80s but its exploration of feminist issues makes it incredibly relevant for a contemporary audience. A riveting piece of theatre.
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