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A CurtainUp London Review
John Bull's Other Island
by Liza Zapol
George Bernard Shaw's rarely produced comedy about Ireland, John Bull's Other Island, has far more than an historical interest. The play was not highly regarded when it was written in 1904, commissioned and subsequently rejected by Yeats for the opening of Dublin's Abbey theatre. It was regarded as too long, full of technical difficulties, and slightly controversial.
Nearly a century later, Dominic Dromgoole's abridged production gives insight into the famous author's feelings about his homeland, Ireland and adoptive home, England, and entertainingly so! In addition, it asks still pertinent questions about capitalism, industrialisation and our moral responsibility to our communities.
Civil engineer Thomas Broadbent (Charles Edwards decides that he must go to the company land in Rosscullen to speculate and plan for developing it. He convinces his business partner Lawrence Doyle (Gerrard McArthur), originally from that very town, to go with him. Charles Edward's Broadbent is accurate in the way that can make you cringe. He is a walking generalisation of an English gentleman: inevitably patronising, dashing and overemphatic with his language, an eternal campaigner, romantic, and unwittingly destructive.
Gerrard McArthur's Doyle is Broadbent's Irish antithesis: excessively brooding, perhaps too excessively, if this is possible. He speaks seldom and chooses his words carefully. He firmly believes in being realistic, and repeatedly scorns the Irish penchant for dreaming. Many of the early scenes are dedicated to witty comparisons of the English and the Irish, and while these characters tend to become tiresome, it is impossible say the same about the sharp writing.
The most delightful scenes are those between Broadbent and Doyle's childhood sweetheart Nora Reilly (Catherine Walker). Dromgoole's delicate direction shows in their first moonlit meeting, in which there are several humorous misunderstandings. Broadbent fawns and oafishly expresses his passion for the delicate, lamenting Nora Reilly. Even more interesting, though less funny and more poignant, is Broadbent's transformation into shrewd campaigning husband, once his engagement to Reilly is secured.
It is the appearance of lapsed priest Keegan (Niall Buggy) that brings the soul and lasting pertinence of the play. Keegan, a self referred lunatic and animist, is also the moral conscience of Rosscullen. He argues against the change represented by the land developers, and for the preservation of his beautiful homeland, the rights of the poor and of the animals. Buggy's portrayal of Keegan grows stronger as the play progresses, though it is unclear if this is because he was restricted by the way Shaw wrote the character. The performance develops from a characterisation of an idiot savant, to a fascinatingly opinionated and righteous character.
Michael Taylor's Irish set is bucolic and cleverly designed. It works very well for the outdoor scenes, with rolling hills, gates, and jagged stones. However, indoor scenes at the Doyle house, indicated by door frames on the grass, seem an odd choice. Perhaps it is meant to indicate the prelapsarian nature of Ireland before industrialisation, but it is still a stretch.
Dromgoole's production is far more than a dramaturgical exercise. With its strong cast, it takes on relevance for today's audience.
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