September 21, 2003

Sharon's Grave

The Druid Theatre's production of John B Keane's "Sharon's Grave" finished up last night. If you get a chance to see it on tour, seize it. The play, written in 1960, is set thirty years earlier in rural Kerry. An old man lays dying in a ramshackle cottage on the coast - his daughter Trassee Conlee tends to him, wondering what will become of herself and her simpleton brother, Neelus in the future. The cause of her anxiety is her cousin, Dinzie who intends to seize the farm once his uncle dies - he plans to send Trassee up to his own parents house, and send Neelus to a home.

Dinzie is an evil creature, consumed by hatred. He hates the old farmer for not dying sooner, forcing him to wait for what he regards as his rightful inheritance. He hates his cousins - their presence on the farm endangers his plans. But most of all, he hates life. His legs are withered, and he uses his bigger but simpler brother as a packmule. He feels only half a man not just because of his physical deformity but because he has no land, and is therefore of no attraction to anyone. Once he gets the farm, he reasons, there'll be no shortage of women who'll marry him.

Dinzie's plan takes a knock, when a stranger, Peadar arrives at Trassie's door on the night of her father's passing. He had travelled there looking for work and stayed on to help around the farm after the funeral. The attraction between Peadar and Trassie is immediate and obvious, and it grows stronger as the days pass. Dinzie knows that if his cousin marries, he will have no inheritance. It is clear only murder will secure his future

Though Tom Hickey gets top billing (as a healer Pat Bó Buí hired by Dinzie to prove Neelus is mad and thus have him committed), it is Frankie McCafferty as Dinzie that is the centre of the show. His first appearance, piggybacking on his brother, is at his uncle's bedside. Die!, he screams, won't you die and be done with it! And he only gets more malevolent after that. When he is set down, he writhes about the stage like a snake, hissing evil and venom. He has the best lines, of course, but it is a sustained and frightening performance by McCafferty, who would be best known to most Irish or British viweers as an amadán in the TV show, Ballykissangel. While Dinzie represents evil in a pure form, Neelus (played by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) is an innocent in this world. He spends his time, day and night, out at Sharon's Grave, the mouth of a hole in the cliff that plunges down to the sea. Local legend has it that Sharon, a celtic princess, was thrown into the pit by a deformed underling who was jealous of her beauty - Sharon's last act was to drag her attacker with her to a watery grave. Neelus believes the shrieking and howling of the wind and the moaning of the sea, is the lament of Sharon herself, who can only gain eternal release by sacrifice. The play's denouement hinges on the battle of affection for Neelus, between his sister's unquestioning love for him, and Dinzie's attempt to trick him into disposing of both him and Trassie.

This was Keane's second play, and is a powerful insight into the desperation caused by grinding poverty. The dialogue is earthy and steeped in the piseogí and superstitions of the time. As I was watching it, I wondered if my own generation, born in the late Sixties and early Seventies, would be the last to view such a play with any familiarity. The likes of Pat Bó Buí, part faith-healer, part quack, who would be as likely to get a call to heal a sick pig as a sick neighbour were still around when I was growing up ( though mainly for curing animals). I still know people who go to fortune tellers and 'tea-leaf readers'. In another generation, there probably won't be many farmers of any sort, let alone the small holdings of peasant farmers that Keane writes about in this play (and others). And yet, in the week just gone, a man went to prison for helping his father kill his uncle in a row over land. The younger brother inherited the holding six years after the play was written and was killed 30 years later by his older brother, his resentment at being manoeuvred out of his inheritance (as he saw it) leading him to bludgeon his sibling to death with the help of his son.

Posted by Monasette at September 21, 2003 10:48 PM | TrackBack

I know the play well, wish I was there to see it. I went to college with Frankie, and did a few plays with him in Dramsoc. He's a great actor, but it's still hard to imagine him full of venom....

Posted by: Skin at September 26, 2003 07:33 PM

Aye - he's certainly opened plenty of eyes with this performance,


Posted by: John at September 29, 2003 09:34 PM