Peter Gowen, Peter Daly, Jonathan Gunning and Gerard Byrne in the Abbey Theatre production of 'Arrah-na-Pogue'. Photo: Colm Hogan

Peter Gowen, Peter Daly, Jonathan Gunning and Gerard Byrne in the Abbey Theatre production of 'Arrah-na-Pogue'. Photo: Colm Hogan

Mary Murray in the Abbey Theatre production of 'Arrah-na-Pogue'. Photo: Colm Hogan

Mary Murray in the Abbey Theatre production of 'Arrah-na-Pogue'. Photo: Colm Hogan

Jack Walsh in the Abbey Theatre production of 'Arrah-na-Pogue'. Photo: Colm Hogan

Jack Walsh in the Abbey Theatre production of 'Arrah-na-Pogue'. Photo: Colm Hogan

The Abbey has offered Christmas ‘craic’ in Dion Boucicault’s “rollicking good tale of romance and misadventure” and by and large director Mikel Murfi’s production delivers exactly that. It’s relentlessly exuberant, both vocally and in physical movement. Aided by built-in trampolines on the floor, the cast is committed to a form of bounce that allows little or no pause for breath. Murfi allows the tirelessly lively business to dominate much of the lengthy first section (combining Acts I and II); it eventually shows signs of wearing thin.

Regardless of that, the cast of fifteen is on its collective toes throughout. Cues are picked up snappily, choral ensemble work is sharp, and accents are honed to do justice to the pulsing rhythms of Boucicault’s dialogue, whether the soaring lyrical brogue of the lover (“There’s Arrah’s cabin; the oysther shell that’s got the pearl of my heart in it”), the patriotic rhetoric (“My own land! Bless every blade of grass upon your green cheeks!”) or the apoplexy of imperial power (“Do you consider, sir, the debt of duty we owe your sovereign?”) The bombardment of words eases at moments, which Murfi has orchestrated well so that the clever turns of phrase are respected – “When a man thravels wid a big lump of money in his pocket, he is offering a reward for his own murdher”; “Shaun is bespoke. The spade is ready for him.” There’s a delightful, colourful profligacy in Boucicault’s words.

The Abbey production has re-discovered the energetic excitement in a piece of theatre that’s nearly 150 years old. The plot is bold, unsubtle and transparent, full of twists and turns: Arrah (she of the kiss, played by Mary Murray) offers shelter to fugitive ’98 rebel, Beamish MacCoul (Rory Nolan), but she is betrayed by lustful villain Feeney of the red-rimmed eyes (Jack Walsh) on the eve of her wedding to Shaun the Post (Aaron Monaghan). Complications follow with Fanny Power (Mary O’Driscoll) in love with MacCoul, and Colonel Bagenal O’Grady (Peter Hanly) in love with Fanny. Add peasants and red-coats and lots of gallops across the Wicklow Hills and the adventure gets under way.

Rather than fill the space with a replica of Glendalough and environs, Murfi, with designer Sabine Dargent and Matt Guinnane (Props and models), has chosen a more ironic approach: while the surrounds seem redundantly glitzy and abstract, the slickly choreographed use of the actors, to trundle onto the stage walls, suits of armour, trees and even the moon, is both cheeky and novel. In Part Two, the imaginative flair erupts into fantabulous absurdity: Working from Boucicault’s stage direction – A room in Dublin Castle; a fire place with screen; a table, with papers and shaded light, chairs, &c.; a bay window, curtained; a door – they transform the actors into the items of furniture, with the bonus touch of a dancing tiger hearth-rug. They do a similar witty piece of work on Shaun’s prison tower, inside and out. The production could have gained from even more of that kind of zany panache.

Murfi has assembled a strong cast. The peasants (Gerard Byrne, Peter Daly, and Jonathan Gunning) are rollicking; the villain Feeney (Jack Walsh) is a haunting, red-eyed ghoul; Gerry Walsh makes an impressive, sonorous but soft-hearted Sergeant; Ciarán O'Brien bares almost all as a cockney Winterbottom – the pun is exploited. Peter Hanly and Mary O’Driscoll represent the charming face of old Irish families; Rory Nolan conveys the nobility and stature of the rebel, Beamish MacCoul; and Peter Gowen is a commanding imperial Secretary. As Shaun, Aaron Monaghan is perfectly cast, full of sustained energy and passion. Mary Murray makes a compelling Arrah. While the animation of her features is lost a little to a wig and a colleen costume, her capacity for lucid intensity brings an unexpected seriousness to the part. Conor Linehan, at the piano throughout the evening, contributes a subtle, understated soundtrack to the narrative.

There are moments when Boucicault is charting, not just the struggle against the old enemy, but the dialectic between the forces of law and order and the spirit that protects the rebel, robs the rich, elevates loyalty and cheers on escape-attempts over prison walls. It’s an unruly spirit that is attractive, especially when subverting the colonial structure. Boucicault seems to be on the side of those who chose to stay outside the law. The banks are fair game for the anarchists: one Bank of Ireland and one Bank of Naas (one wonders how it’s faring in 2010). There’s a noble form of exile (MacCoul’s) contrasting with current flight from fiscal responsibilities. There’s potential sexual abuse, in Feeney’s rapacious obsession with Arrah, but a therapeutic dousing in the Lough puts an end to that and the central romantic interest remains conventionally ‘safe’.

Although it does capture something of the outlook that has contributed to current national woes, the oblique comments on our times are peripheral in this production; it’s much more committed to that ‘craic’, to being a well-upholstered piece of family entertainment. Boucicault is like the ‘full Irish’ breakfast – hearty, tasty and for the most part, predictable – and, if one doesn’t indulge too often, it won’t be too harmful and can, indeed, make one feel happily replete.

Derek West

  • Review
  • Theatre

Arrah-na-Pogue by Dion Boucicault

21 Dec, 2010 - 5 Feb, 2011

Produced by Abbey Theatre
In Abbey Theatre

Directed by Mikel Murfi

Set Design: Sabine Dargent

Lighting Design: Kevin Treacy

Costume Design: Niamh Lunny

Composer/Musician: Conor Linehan

With: Aaron Monaghan, Mary Murray, Rory Nolan, Peter Hanly, Mary O’Driscoll, Peter Gowen, Jack Walsh, with Gerard Byrne, Peter Daly, Jonathan Gunning, Ruth Lehane, Michael Glenn Murphy, Ciarán O’Brien, Gerard Walsh