THE­ATRE Shock­ingly good Shaugh­raun


The Shaugh­raun Smock Al­ley U ntil Septem­ber 1 ★★★★★

Smock Al­ley, with its an­cient brick and stone walls, is an al­most per­fect set­ting for 18th or 19th cen­tury plays. Sets and props only have to be prac­ti­cal and imag­i­na­tive with­out be­ing elab­o­rate. It’s what makes it such a good venue for the plays of Dublin-born Dion Bouci­cault who spent most of his adult life between Eng­land and Amer­ica where his plays were enor­mously suc­cess­ful.

When The Shaugh­raun was first pro­duced in New York in 1874, Bouci­cault him­self played the role of Conn the Shaugh­raun. That was par for the course. Not con­tent with be­ing a pro­lific writer, Bouci­cault was one of those all-rounders who want to be in­volved in every­thing – pro­duc­ing, di­rect­ing and act­ing in his own plays. Per­haps he was in­spired by be­ing named Diony­sius, af­ter the Greek god of wine, mad­ness and the­atre.

But above all, he was an en­ter­tainer who knew how to sup­ply what the pub­lic wanted: ac­tion, love af­fairs, he­roes, vil­lains, skul­dug­gery, in­tri­cate plots, laugh­ter, and sharp so­cial and po­lit­i­cal com­ment. The Shaugh­raun has them all.

Be­cause his plays are unashamedly melo­dra­mas, they were, and still are, of­ten dis­missed in snootier Ir­ish cir­cles as stage-Ir­ish car­i­ca­tures, but his char­for ac­ters are more than stereo­types, his vil­lains are recog­nis­able even in to­day’s world, and his women can be spiky and clever, not just pretty dec­o­ra­tions.

His writ­ing needs per­form­ers to play up to the melo­dra­matic pos­si­bil­i­ties with­out de­scend­ing into farce, and this lat­est pro­duc­tion has lined up an ex­cel­lent cast, di­rected by Clare Maguire.

Aron He­garty projects all the vil­lainy and hu­mour in the role of the de­spi­ca­ble Corry Kinchela, a lech­er­ous, un­scrupu­lous schemer will­ing to com­mit mur­der to get what he wants. And what he wants is the es­tate of Robert Ffol­liott, trans­ported du­bi­ously Fe­nian ac­tiv­i­ties. As his nasty side­kick Har­vey Duff, David O’Meara is ex­cel­lent, con­trast­ing ad­mirably in his dou­ble role as the gen­tle­manly Fr. Dolan.

Cap­tain Mo­lineux is the up­right English of­fi­cer whose job is to cap­ture Robert Ffol­liott, es­caped from Aus­tralia. It’s a very tricky role; he’s the butt of ev­ery­one’s mock­ery through his fail­ure to un­der­stand the Ir­ish, while be­ing friendly, con­de­scend­ing, and scrupu­lous about his duty. His sur­ren­der to the per­son­al­ity of the lovely Claire Ffol­liott, has him in a pro­fes­sional quandary.

David Fen­nelly plays him with nicely-judged un­der­state­ment that catches all the con­fused hu­mour in the role. He’s matched beau­ti­fully by Juli­ette Cros­bie’s feisty Claire, pas­sion­ately Ir­ish, loyal to her felon brother Robert, and un­com­fort­able about her feel­ings for the cap­tain.

Conn the Shaugh­raun is a feck­less, job­less, poacher, not too bright, but wily and loyal. It’s the sort of role that could be eas­ily over­done, but as played by Liam Hes­lin he’s ath­letic, like­able and great fun.

Bouci­cault placed great value on elab­o­rate stage ef­fects, and pro­duc­ers ever since have felt free to throw in dance, mu­sic and lots of ac­tiv­ity to keep things brisk. This pro­duc­tion has an in­ven­tive light­ing de­sign, lots of dance, mu­sic and song (not its strong­est point), but it’s hard to be too crit­i­cal of a show that cap­tures the spirit of Bouci­cault’s rous­ing frolic.

‘The Shaugh­raun, as played by Liam Hes­lin, is ath­letic, like­able and great fun’

shock­ingly good shaugh­raun: Liam Hes­lin as the epony­mous hero of Bouci­cault’s clas­sic with Martha Dun­lea, left, and Deirdre Mon­aghan

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