John Bull’s Other Island


reviewed by SHAUN TRAYNOR

This is a play written in 1904, therefore almost a hundred years ago, in which the playwright, George Bernard Shaw, foresaw the Celtic Tiger.

Did he see it as a Celtic tiger, burning bright/In the forests of the night/What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?/

Or simply as a crass, Sunday-mass-avoiding, entrepreneurial and greedy society?

What shall it gain a man …?

Through the eyes and eloquence of defrocked priest, the ex Father Keegan, there were moments of the former but, exquisitely, a rebuttal of the latter.

Niall Buggy who played Father Keegan gave the performance of a lifetime. The character of this ex priest is thought to express the opinions – in a play of  resolutely even handed and contrasting opinions – of the playwright himself. That he was (in the play) a self proclaimed, mad vegetarian who talks about “brother pig,” was touchingly revealing. A great performance, nevertheless.

Other performances to note were Charles Edwards as the pompous, upper-middle-class Englishman and Gerrard McArthur as his Celtic counterpart. These two formed the axis of the plot, they were resolved to go to Ireland from their London architectural practice to build golf courses and leisure centres, make a lot of money and modernise the sod. The depiction of Irish buffoons to be found there was unpleasant, as was the character of stage-Irishman Haffigan – all parts well enough played by the actors but too full of lines peppered by “begorrahs.”

Sympathy was therefore, at first, with the character of Doyle because he was a successful Irishman, as successful as the Englishman, Broadbent. He was an essential contrast to the Irish in Ireland who were portrayed as bog. But in the end even he was seen to be primarily self-seeking.The direction by Dominic Dromgoole was excellent (as one would expect) and the music between the acts was stunning, other-worldly, very loud, nerve tingling. The set changes brought gasps from the audience. All in all the old play was very well served. It didn’t however, stand up to such heaping of contemporary artistic complements (or compliments) on it; it creaked a bit, seemed archaic in its stereotypes, but was redeemed. Recommended.

At the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn. Until 25th Oct 03
Box Office 020 7328 1000