George Bernard Shaw was of course keenly aware of metropolitan-cultural England's fondness for those characteristics which it thought of as "Irish". Nor was the traffic one-way: each nation's supposedly defining attributes have often been most outstandingly personified in nationals of the other place.
This is what Shaw focuses on in his 1904 play John Bull's Other Island, now revived by Dominic Dromgoole at the Tricycle. The contrast is between "the Englishman... so clever in his foolishness" and the Irishman, vice versa. When Lawrence Doyle returns to the town of his birth, Rosscullen, after 18 years, determined with his English business partner Thomas Broadbent to "develop" the place, it becomes apparent that Doyle now speaks far too bluntly and businesslike to be clasped back to his people's bosom; Broadbent, on the other hand, is so carried away by his romantic ideas of Ireland that he becomes a kind of patrician holy fool to the townsfolk, even securing the hand of Doyle's old sweetheart because he's too starry-eyed to realise when she tries to decline him.
Shaw being Shaw, of course, there is more scathing insight than mere comedy of national manners. The downbeat final scene has all the passionate anti-capitalist excoriation of Shaw's first play Widowers' Houses. He also identifies, unobtrusively but with unerring accuracy, the compulsion shared by both nations (along, probably, with all others) for claiming that their own sufferings are uniquely privileged: misery snobbery.
Michael Taylor's design, trucking whole swaths of Irish landscape on and offstage, is more ostentatious than usual for the Tricycle, and scene changes slow the action a little. Of the players, Niall Buggy as the eccentric unfrocked priest Keegan succeeds in putting across the most Shavian of sentiments, precisely because he does so not with the usual Shaw fire but in a weary (though still sardonic) lament. Charles Edwards and Gerrard McArthur are in fine equipoise as the airy-fairy Saxon and the hard-headed Celt respectively; John Dougall steals the first scene as a faith-and-begob caricature who's only there to have it pointed out that that's what he is, and that Irishness is more, and more complex, than anyone onstage thinks.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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