Irish theatre does not lack strong women. Names like Garry Hynes, Olwen Fouéré, Lynne Parker, Amy Conroy, Annie Ryan and Anne Clark command serious respect wherever they are uttered. Yet the Abbey Theatre’s recentWaking the Nation programme commemorating the 1916 Rising revealed the insidious lack of representation of women on our national stage. In all aspects of life, the word feminism is being reinvigorated and female voices from Beyoncé to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to Emma Watson are coming out in their droves to speak about the under-representation of women in literature, theatre, television and film. Yet in Big Maggie, Druid theatre has turned to a play written over forty years ago by a male writer. Why now?
Back in 2011, the Guardian critiqued John B. Keane’s polemical play for having ‘one note characterizations,’ describing it as Keane’s ‘least subtle’ play. Yet in the current socioeconomic context, I couldn’t help but feel that Maggie Polpin was anything but one-dimensional. The titular character is portrayed fiercely by Aisling O’Sullivan who conquers the role with such mastery that only a handful of theatre actors have captured in their careers; the Fiona Shaws, Maggie Smiths and Dame Judi Denches only coming close to the control and depth executed by O’Sullivan. Despite her circumstances, Maggie reviles the norms of patriarchal society and against all odds, vows never again to rely on anyone else, especially for financial matters. She spurns the advances of the local farmer Byrne (played with excellent comic timing by John Olohan) in favour of making her own way on the estate her husband has left her in his will. We first meet Maggie at her husband’s funeral, a man who is known to be a notorious philanderer and malingerer, something which was hardly kept under wraps in such a tight-knit rural community. She appears cold and apathetic towards her husband’s burial, wanting only to get on with things and avoid the requisite sympathies from the locals. Maggie’s caustic mockery of her eldest daughter Katie (Charlotte McCurry) seems to come from a bad place: It is only later we learn of her husband’s plans to leave everything to his eldest daughter and to spurn his long-suffering wife out of spite, leaving her penniless. Charlotte McCurry embodies Katie with great skill; she is a perfect mix of the saccharine-yet-savvy Daddy’s girl. When we learn she has been sleeping with a married man, her sexual confidence and chutzpah is immediately shattered with naught but a harsh word from her mother. Her fall from grace is heartbreaking and saturated in pathos.
One does not often find parallels with the work of John B Keane and the Coen Brothers but I couldn’t help but find more than a hint of Maggie Polpin in the character of Floyd Gerhardt in season two of Noah Hawley’sFargo. As in Druid Theatre’s Big Maggie, the matriarch of the Gerhardt family is faced with a major decision upon the death of her husband, the infamous mafia boss of the Fargo district . Floyd is insistent on assuming her husband’s position as boss, assuring her grown sons that their day to take over the business will come, but not while she is still able. It is not a popular choice. And the resemblance to Euripides’ Medea can’t just be coincidental. Medea is a character in Greek mythology, immortalised in the work of Euripides, whose husband Jason left her for another woman. Out of spite for Jason and his nubile bride Glauce, Medea kills two of her children. Although Maggie doesn’t exactly kill her children to avenge her husband, she certainly prevents them from fulfilling their life’s desires. Maurice who remains loyal to his detriment is driven out of the house at Maggie’s refusal to hand over the farm to him and his fiance Mary Madden (Clare Monnelly). So too is the eldest son Mick, banished from his childhood home by an ultimatum given by his mother. Katie is pawned off to a rich farmer in a marriage of convenience. Only Gert,the youngest daughter remains. She is the docile one, the least confrontational, the one least likely to thwart her mother. Yet she seems to come of age in front of our eyes, falling in love and getting rejected all in the space of a couple of scenes.
Any notions of romantic love are banished from the get-go with Keane’s satiric play. Until his death, Maggie is tied to a cheating husband by ‘pride, ignorance and religion’ and when she has the chance to seduce the gormless Teddy Heelin (Keith Duffy) she wholeheartedly commits to the cause like it’s Man-Eating 101. The chemistry between Maggie and Teddy is palpable and it leaves the audience thinking maybe the decision to seduce him only for her daughter to learn what a love-rat Heelin is is not as clear-cut as it was pre-supposed in earlier productions of the text. But that is the sheer power of O’Sullivan’s acting – she is a complex antihero, full of contradictions and desires and misguided love for her children. Whether Keane intended it or not – O’Sullivan as Maggie clearly goes through a dilemma – one gets the sense that this brazen, earthy women has the sexual drive of an elemental nature, akin to the relationship of Heathcliff and Cathy. She is sexually attracted to Heelin, no doubt, but is more than prepared to spew him out to serve her cause, to teach her daughter a lesson. And what a lesson it is.
There really is no weak link in Druid Theatre’s Big Maggie. It is hard however to hone in on any of the other actors, though it is a worthy ensemble. Such is the magnitude of Aisling O’Sullivan as Big Maggie Polpin. A performance that will surely go down in the annals of history as one of the all-time greats.
Druid Theatre’s Big Maggie runs from now until March 19th at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin.