Jean-Paul Van Caulwelaert
The prolific Irish playwright J.B. Keane is probably best known for his 1966 work The Field, which was made into a film by Jim Sheridan in 1990 starring Richard Harris.
Although rather overshadowed by his contemporaries Brian Friel and Tom Murphy (whose play A Whistle in the Dark was staged recently at the Tricycle), Keane belongs to the great Irish storytelling tradition which is still alive and kicking in the plays of Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh.
No doubt drawing on Keane’s own experiences as a publican in a village in south-west Ireland, The Field is one of his dark dramas of rural life which expose the repressive aspects of close-knit communities. Risn McBrinn’s punchy production is splendidly atmospheric without quite capturing the play’s mythic qualities, which are reminiscent of the grand territorial conflicts of Marcel Pagnol’s Jean de Florette or even a classic Hollywood Western.
The play is set mainly in a spit and sawdust public house in Carraigthomond, effectively evoked in Paul Wills’s set. After the impoverished widow Mrs McCabe decides to auction the four-acre field she has inherited from her husband, the publican/auctioneer Mick Flanagan agrees to sell it to the highest bidder.
However, he is persuaded by the pugnacious local farmer ‘Bull’ McCabe, with a mixture of bribes and threats, not to let anyone else know about the auction so he can buy the field at a bargain price. Bull feels he has a right to the field anyway as during his five-year tenancy he has improved the field’s quality beyond all recognition, and he needs it as a passage to water for his cattle.
Meanwhile, William Dee, a prosperous builder wanting to return to Ireland from England, finds out and, despite Bull’s warnings, outbids him. But Bull is prepared to go any lengths to stop him from taking over what he regards as his land.
Keane debunks the romanticised concept of an Irish pastoral idyll by showing how the refusal to accept outsiders and to move on can become morally corrupting, as everyone becomes complicit in a violent crime. And yet he makes it very understandable how everyone has their own personal reasons for not breaking the wall of silence, despite pleas from the bishop and the local priest.
We feel strongly the claustrophobia of this inward-looking, clannish village where, as Mick’s frustrated wife Maimie says, “You can’t turn over without someone else knowing about it.”
And yet there is a nicely balanced dichotomy between tradition and modernisation, which taps into the special relationship between Irish farmers and the land which for centuries the English prevented them from owning. Doesn’t it seem natural justice that a local who has looked after the field and will maintain its agricultural use should have precedence over an outsider who is going to ‘concrete it over’ for his business? This production gives a compelling account of bully-boy tactics but lacks the necessary grandeur to reflect the elemental feelings involved.
Lorcan Cranitch has the swaggering, intimidatory physical presence for Bull without suggesting the almost-tragic intensity which Richard Harris brought to the role. David Ganly is excellent as the cowardly, compromised Mick who is trying to make a living, while Rita Hamill is the overburdened but feisty Maimie. Jean-Paul Van Caulwelaert looks uncomfortable as Dee, but there is outstanding support from Tony Rohr as the amusingly deferential drunkard Bird O’Donnell and Heather Tobias as the trusting Mrs McCabe who is the innocent catalyst of all the trouble.