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