Sex in Irish Drama: Running to Stand Still

During the last month, I’ve seen two productions that come from very different eras, and which seem to suggest that Irish drama has changed enormously. The first was Rough Magic’s comedy Jezebel by Mark Cantan, and the second is the current Abbey Theatre revival of John B. Keane’s Sive, directed by Conall Morrison.

Jezebel is a light-hearted comedy about a male/female couple who decide that their sex life needs to be spiced up. They work their way through various handbooks, and they play out multiple scenarios – before  deciding that having a threesome might make things (more?) interesting for them. The production has now finished its Irish tour (though it is going to Scotland soon) so I’m probably not going to ruin anyone’s enjoyment by saying that the twist is that, after the threesome takes place, the two women involved both become pregnant. A series of complications and deceptions arise, and it all concludes with the two women giving birth simultaneously.

Jezebel-Map

The play could just as easily have been called Bedroom Farce, and indeed it feels a lot like an Alan Ayckbourn play at times: it’s well crafted, it features some clever jokes (about statistics, of all things), and it has some fun with theatrical form. In common with a lot of Rough Magic plays, there’s some clever use of direct address of the audience – most of which is delivered in a style of easy familiarity, as if we all understand each other very well, and all share exactly the same set of values.

Also notable is the affluence of the characters . For example, when the couple discover that Jezebel is pregnant, both immediately state that they’ll pay her medical bills (a very casual attitude to a bill of at least €3,000).  So these are the kinds of people whom we don’t often see on the Irish stage: characters who are not very different from the audience.

And, again in common with a lot of Rough Magic plays, Jezebel feels both contemporary and cosmopolitan. The three actors (Peter Daly, Margaret McAuliffe and Valerie O’Connor) all deliver lines in their own Irish accents, but the play could easily  be re-located to any other English-speaking country; I am open to correction on this, but I don’t recall any moments in the script that specifically identified the characters or location as Irish.

So this production has a lot in common with those great moments when Rough Magic did work like Declan Hughes’s Digging for Fire or Shiver or Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain  plays where it’s obvious that young people in the audience are experiencing a thrill of recognition. And I did hear people say afterwards that they never knew it was possible to see plays like the one they’d just watched – which is a thought I’d had myself back in 1991 when I saw a Rough Magic play for the first time myself.

Rough Magic have probably done more than any other Irish company to find common ground between sex and Irishness. For example, their 2004 musical Improbable Frequency features a long musical number that involved Peter Hanley and Lisa Lambe narrating their characters’ first sexual encounter with each other. Similarly, they also produced Christian O’Reilly’s play about transvestism and fidelity, Is This About Sex?  

Rough Magic have always set out to bring Irish drama up to date, and if they’ve included sex in their plays, it’s probably because they were in rebellion against works like John B Keane’s Sive. The story of how an old farmer tries to buy a young bride for himself puts Keane’s play firmly in the tradition of Restoration comedies about the marriage market (for reasons  that I can’t articulate it reminds me slightly of Behn’s The Rover). But, as many have observed, the play uses ritual and repetition to create a sense of tragedy – albeit a tragedy intermixed with moments of melodrama. So it’s much closer to the Greeks than to London in the 1670s (or Ireland in the 2010s).

And, in contrast to Jezebel, the problem in Sive is that no-one is having sex. The old farmer who lusts after Sive is, as played by Daniel Reardon, dominated by a kind of malevolent vulpine appetite. Sive herself is in a passionate but apparently chaste relationship with a younger man called Liam Scuab. The matchmaker who causes so much trouble in the play does so because he has been embittered by his own failure to form a relationship. And most interestingly, the aunt and uncle who betray Sive are clearly in a relationship that lacks intimacy – they have no children of their own, and their wariness with each other hints at years of sexual disappointment and a kind of bruised vulnerability. As played by Barry Barnes and Derbhle Crotty, their relationship is  dominated by sex – but only in the sense that any mention of bed seems to throw both into a state of defensiveness and dejection.

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Simon O’Gorman (Thomasheen Seán Rua), Róisín O’Neill (Sive) and Daniel Reardon (Seán Dota) in Sive by John B. Keane. Directed by Conall Morrison. Photo by Ros Kavanagh.

I thought Sive was a very good production with excellent acting from the entire cast.  As ever with Keane I thought it could have benefited from some cuts; I’m not sure that the level of repetition in the play is necessary or effective. That said, many people I know who have seen it have spoken of being deeply moved by the production, so it’s clearly working well.  Likewise Jezebel is also a very good production. One of my First Year students who saw the play spoke about the precision of the actors’ line delivery, especially in the case of Peter Daly; the student made the point that they’d never realised that actors’ diction has  to be so clear in order to carry a funny play for a long period. I thought that was an astute comment: the production will probably strike some viewers as frivolous or meaningless but the precision and discipline on display from the actors and director was very impressive.

I can imagine that someone going from Sive to Jezebel might form the impression that Ireland has been transformed during the last 50 years, at least insofar as sex is concerned. Sive gives us a world in which sex dominates because no-one can speak about it, or express their sexuality fully. Guilt abounds. In contrast, Jezebel gives us an Ireland in which sex is not just normal but normative: there’s an expectation that the people in this play must be sexually active in the way that sexual inhibition is expected in the world of Sive.

It’s often stated that the reason we like watching John B Keane (and Martin McDonagh) in contemporary Ireland is that doing so allows “us” to breathe a “cathartic roar of relief” (as Vic Merriman put it) because “we” are no longer like the “them” that we see on the stage. And I can imagine how someone watching Jezebel could see that play as suggesting that “we” have “moved on” and are much more sexually confident and adventurous.

But – at the risk of knocking down an argument that no-one has actually made yet – I don’t think such a view would be accurate. What struck me about these two plays is that, despite their differences, both present sex in Ireland as something utterly joyless. This is explicitly the case in Sive, but that joylessness is also present in Jezebel. The couple at the centre of the Rough Magic play feel the need to spice up their sex-life after only eight months together, and the various acts they imagine seem motivated by boredom rather than desire. They reminded me of people at a Starbucks counter who are so overwhelmed by the range of choices available that they end up paralysed: I found myself wondering why they couldn’t just have whatever the sexual equivalent of an ordinary cup of coffee might be.

In other words, the journey from Sive to Jezebel is not one from sexual suppression to sexual freedom. instead, it’s a journey  from one set of unhealthy attitudes about sex to another set of hang-ups.

We’ve seen a lot of work on sexuality in Irish theatre over the last 20 years, especially since 2008. Plays like Mark O’Halloran’s Trade attempt to come to terms with the relationship between sex and intimacy, and also the relationship between sex and identity. And of course money is a major theme  there too.  I’d also think of Stuart Carolan’s Empress of India, which sought to stage adult sexuality with a courageous frankness that caused quite a bit of controversy at the time.

But aside from those and a handful of other examples (like O’Reilly’s Is This About Sex?), we haven’t had much drama in Ireland that is specifically about sex (as opposed to sexuality): not sex as a problem, or sex as the cause of a problem or a pathology, but sex as an important part of  life.

As we see sexually explicit films like Nymphomaniac and Blue is the Warmest Colour dominant in our cinemas, it’s interesting to speculate about why we don’t find this kind of frankness in our theatre. Nor do we produce plays from the British or American repertoire that deal with these themes.

Is there something we’re trying to avoid?

In the meantime, here’s an interesting video about Jezebel

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