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A CurtainUp London Review
St John Ervine is a predecessor of Sean O’Casey and the great tradition of twentieth century Irish political plays. The programme tells us that this playwright is the man of whom the Irish Times said, "Mr Ervine proves to us that prejudice is stronger than reason."
Mixed Marriage is about a strike by Belfast dockyard workers in 1907 and the Rainey family central to the play are Protestants. All the action takes place downstairs in the Rainey’s homely kitchen and living room.
The head of the family, John Rainey (Daragh O’Malley) is an inspirational and rousing speaker on behalf of the strikers. Michael O’Hara (Damien Hannaway) is a Catholic activist and family friend and the two men, despite their religious differences, agree to work together to unite the religious factions into a solid strike movement.
The fly in the ointment for Mr Rainey is the woman his son Hugh (Christopher Brandon) wants to marry, a Catholic girl Nora Murray (Nora-Jane Noone). Although Mr Rainey has no objection to joining together with Catholic strikers, he draws the line when it comes to his son wanting a marital union with one of the "Papists". Mrs Rainey his wife (Fiona Victory) is caught in the middle, trying to reason with her husband when he threatens to throw their son Hugh out of the family home. Before the family can sort out their problems, the strike comes to a head and an ugly situation develops with soldiers called and a riot starts.
On the Rainey’s wall is a reproduction of the painting on horseback of the bewigged Protestant victor of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, William of Orange, King William III of England, Scotland and Ireland. William defeated his father in law, the Catholic leaning King James II who fled to France. This is the 17th Century mythology of Protestants versus Catholics which fuelled the Northern Irish conflict versus the Fenians and Irish Nationalism throughout the twentieth century.
Daragh O’Malley is the stocky and emphatically doughty father of the house whose wife stands up to his religious bigotry. As Mrs Rainey shouts at her husband, he whimpers, "She took my son from me." I was so involved by the convincing acting of what is really melodrama that I gasped out loud at one point. Nora-Jane Noone plays the sweet girl, risking the censure of both families and Christopher Brandon is uprightly sticking by his choice of bride. I liked too Damien Hannaway’s brave Catholic activist, the voice of moderation and co-operation heard too little.
Sam Yates directs. The riot scene is exciting but conducted behind the shuttered windows as shouts are heard in the street and the soldiers threaten to shoot to quell the crowds. Considering this scene is entirely narrated with sound effects it is gripping theatre.
A note about the word "quare" which is liberally used by everyone in this play. It is an Irish localised version of the word queer and means real or quite or extremely and is used as an adverb alongside another adjective for emphasis rather than any specific meaning.
Pairing with this production of Mixed Marriage, at the Finborough on Sundays and Mondays is Drama at Inish also known as Is Life Worth Living, a play written by Lennox Robinson in1933. He was the first director of Mixed Marriage at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Ervine and Robinson are contemporaries of WB Yeats, Lady Gregory, and JM Synge, whose play The Playboy of the Western World is currently showing at the Old Vic.
For Elyse Sommer’s review of another of St John Ervine’s plays in New York go here.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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