The Chastitute

Aidan O'Hare and Martina Carroll in 'The Chastitute' by John B. Keane.

Aidan O'Hare and Martina Carroll in 'The Chastitute' by John B. Keane.

The Cork Arts Theatre has a long history as a tiny venue in the heart of Cork city. Beloved of many an actor and stage hand over the decades, the CAT Club, as it was affectionately known, provided a late night jar for theatre people from the city’s theatres. It also had a tiny stage with about 40 seats which became the venue for many am-dram productions, and for professional theatre it was a useful testing ground for work before it was taken – if at all – to a bigger venue. Several years ago this tiny upstairs theatre moved to a new purpose-built space, which is a classic 100-seat black box theatre space a hop and a skip away on Carroll’s Quay. The venue has hosted new productions from Corcadorca, some new emerging companies and touring shows. Mary Motorhead played there recently.

That’s the history lesson and now artistic director, Dolores Mannion, has decided that the time is right for Cork Arts Theatre to launch a repertory company to “create actor-driven productions that focus on the professional excellence of the actor and mastery of the text to create a personal and dynamic audience experience.”

The debut production is John B. Keane’s The Chastitute and it is perhaps telling that for their first outing it is a playwright – and even a play – beloved of amateur dramatic companies all over the country. This production feels like it has one foot in the amateur ethos and the other stepping towards professional theatre. It is an entertaining couple of hours of theatre that recreates the feeling that comes with the folksiness of shows in the local town hall a generation or more ago. That is partly to do with the fact that it is John B. but it is also partly to do with the style of the production.

Mannion leaves it very much to the actors to find their own way, which might be liberating for the performer but the risk – not altogether avoided here – is that the production has an unevenness of tone. As we follow the sexually forlorn bachelor farmer through several episodes depicting one coitus interruptus after another, Mannion does not quite get to grips with the tone of the play which lurches from tragicomedy to high farce.

Leo Conway in 'The Chastitute'.This is partly down to the playwright himself who juggles pretty fecklessly with his dramatic materials in this work. Unlike his major works like The Field or Sharon’s Grave, The Chastitute creaks and repeats and moves with less mastery. The central character’s many confessional moments with the audience are engaging, often funny and sometimes moving, but without these monologues there is no way that the string of scenes would hold together as a satisfying drama. But what the play lacks in polish it makes up for in ribaldry and righteous anger. In terms of a contemporary resonance there is a sinking feeling that what Keane was saying in this play in 1980 and in earlier works that if the church didn’t have society so hung up with sexual guilt there may not have been so many ugly manifestations of repression.

Leo Conway is rightly pathetic as the timid farmer plagued by the Church and their missionary priests that he’ll be doomed to hell if he ever has a sexual relationship. Inevitably there is the matchmaker who steps in to the chastitute’s desperate life. Michael Murphy makes the most of the outrageously politically incorrect banter from the character. His rapport with the audience is a reminder of the folksiness of countless amateur dramatic moments of the past.

The Chastitute of the title is surrounded by a motley crew of characters and it is in the playing of several parts each that the rest of the cast come into their own. Martina Carroll as the rough Cork city woman matched up with the bachelor for a night is hilariously jaded and uncouth. Fionula Linehan as her mother in this scene puts in her best comic turn of the night. Aidan O’Hare, described as no less than the local whoremaster, is so comically sleazy you’re checking for a slime-trail as he schmoozes across the stage.

Dolores Manion and the people brave enough to put their energy behind the theatre’s new repertory company in moving towards professional standards at the Cork Arts Theatre are to be congratulated for getting on with it and for landing a pretty feisty production in the process. Lighting and stage design are pretty rudimentary in this production, and with more resources and growing ambition it will be interesting to watch this new initiative developing and hopefully all aspects of the theatrical package will become more professional. On the evidence of this outing the burden for now is falling a little too squarely on the shoulders of the actors.

Liam Heylin’s plays include Gdirl from Gdansk and Love, Peace & Robbery. He works as a journalist for the Irish Examiner.

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Chastitute by John B. Keane

17 - 28 April, 2012

Produced by Cork Arts Theatre Repertory Company
In Cork Arts Theatre

Directed by Dolores Mannion

With: Leo Conway, Michael Murphy, Aidan O'Hare, Martina Carroll, Fionula Linehan and Michael Carroll Morris.