Tis not often that I have been dismayed the second an actor opens his mouth, but last night was one of those occasions.
Bull McCabe, that John B Keane creation of ferocious passion, is a vicious raging bully who’d stand the hair on the back of your neck with merely a glowering glance. He has rented a field from the Widow Murphy for five years, and by the sweat of his brow and the blood of his hands he has turned it from a rocky barren land to lush pasture for grazing. Long has he lusted after its ownership so when the Widow puts it up for public auction The Bull intimidates locals so fiercely that none will bid against him, much to the mixed views of the local publican and auctioneer Flanagan. However on the day of the auction an outsider, Galway man, William Dee, freshly home from England with plenty of cash at his command, arrives and outbids the Bull leading to tragic consequences.
I have seen clips of this play in the filmed version, I have read the play itself and was really looking forward to watching it on stage last night. But no sooner had the Bull opened his mouth to speak than my shoulders dropped. I waited, telling myself to be fair, to give the man a chance. But the Bull McCabe did not appear last night. What we got instead was a watered down mumbler, a semi-feral beast with a half American, half Ballygonowhere accent who physically dominated the stage but was toothless.
I don’t know whose great idea it was to cast Brian Dennehy as the bould Bull, but I’d like to find them this morning and kick them in the square shin. Are we so bereft of actors that we must import them to take a role as Irish as Irish can possibly be? Are we so desperate for a ‘name’ that we cheerfully sacrifice tone and context and character? I have no doubt Brian Dennehy is a fine actor, but equally I have no doubt, based on what I saw last night, that he is no Bull McCabe.
I have a theory, perhaps unfounded, but it niggles still, that American actors lose some of their potency when dealing with accents not their own. Stockard Channing was tepid as Lady Bracknell in the Importance of Being Earnest last year too, unable to soar as the scathing intimidating Matriarch, tethered as she was to her vowels.
Dennehy’s Bull was no different, he lowered his voice when his accent slipped, covered his mouth on multiple occasions, and was upstaged by his son, Tadgh, played by the snarling bristling Garret Lombard. Country Gay and I BOTH noticed the other actors’ attempts to haul the Bull’s character out, expressing great fear through bodily actions and mannerisms, but still I felt no real dread and by act 2, Tadgh has taken his own menace down a notch, possibly to make the Bull seem like the fury he ought to have been. Alas to no avail, The Bull remained essentially a mild-mannered heifer.
I know accent is not the be all and end all. But for a John B Keane play is sort of is. Keane’s lilting trilling dialogue almost springs fully formed from the green lush land of Kerry, when he is wistful about clover and shamrock we can almost see the author laying on his back on a warm summer’s day, watching the clouds race over head, pushed on by a gentle wind off the Atlantic. And if you can see it, you’d sure like to hear it. Through the strong-willed yet wistful Maimie we get to know the lay of the land. We learn how it is round those parts, everything is illusion, behind that, pride, fealty, tribalism and brutality. Keane’s words are history, they are crafted in such a way as to transport the audience via time-travel to rural Ireland, to the valley of the squinting windows. So it is jarring and difficult to overcome the sudden interjection of American twang, ESPECIALLY as The Bird O’Donnell, and Maimie Flanagan ( played last night by the brilliant Derbhle Crotty) are so richly lyrical in their speech.
Disappointed, yes, I was. As was Country Gay and many others it seemed to judge by the overheard conversations at interval. A shame too, because the stage and set was terrific and the other actors worked their socks off, but ultimately the heart of The Field must rest on the terrible brutal shoulders of The Bull McCabe, and in this case he was found wanting.