Overshadowed by his compatriots Brian Friel and Tom Murphy, John B Keane (1928-2002) is no less a playwright of the Irish landscape, although recognition came late; his current high reputation dates only from the late 1980s, by which time his work was mostly done.
The Field (1966) is a tremendous drama in a small village community where the ill-tempered farmer Bull McCabe defends, literally to the death, his rights of ownership on a four-acre field he has been renting from a poor widow.
When the field is put up for auction by the local publican (Keane himself owned and ran a pub in his native town of Listowel, north Kerry, for many years), an outsider joins the bidding, spoiling McCabe’s plan to undercut the reserve price of £800.
Events take a nasty turn for the worse on a dark night of retribution, and bellowing Bull’s hold on the village becomes even more sinister, despite the fire and brimstone sermon of a bishop and the best efforts of the constabulary.
The new man wanted to use the field for making concrete blocks. McCabe and his docile son know every blade of grass, every sprouting of shamrock, and their heifers have grazed on the land for years. The dispute is less one of economy and business than of spiritual ownership.
Jim Sheridan’s 1990 film version boasted one of Richard Harris’ greatest performances as Bull, but it also misrepresented the lyrical power and oddity of the play. A great scene between Bull and his son as they lie in wait by the field, talking of crows - a scene which defines their peculiar, primitive relationship - was entirely cut.
While Roisin McBrinn’s production is superbly rhythmed, the bar sometimes seems under-populated and Flanagan’s still attractive wife Maimie (Rita Hamill) is surely too unscathed by having born nine children. And where is the noise they would all make?
But the evening is driven along by Lorcan Cranitch as Bull, a less mythical figure than was Harris, but a scowling, tempestuous bully all the same, swirling through doors in his great coat and smashing his cane on the furniture like a tin pot tyrant. David Ganly is an accommodating Flanagan, Tony Rohr a devious, whisky-sponging bar-stool fixture, and Heather Tobias contributes two beautifully contrasted cameos as the pinched and pasty-faced widow and the giggling wife of Bull’s cousin.
When he came to England for a couple of years, Keane memorialised the Tricycle’s neighbourhood in a poetic parody: “Oh Cricklewood, oh Cricklewood, you stole my youth away; for I was young and innocent, and you were old and grey.” He preferred to remain a country boy, he said with a twinkle, “just like Shakespeare, Yeats and Lorca.” The claim is not too ridiculous.
- Michael Coveney