Review of The Shaughraun

I had looked forward to this chance to see the Irish Rep’s revival of Dion Boucicault’s popular 19th century comedy-melodrama The Shaughraun, but the Countess and I walked away somewhat disappointed. While not by any means disgraceful, the production felt a bit perfunctory and dashed off.

In the Celtic tongue, a shaughraun is riffraff, a vagabond, a loafer. It is not pronounced like it looks. Even though this spelling is Anglicized from the Celtic version (seachrán), neither one gets it quite right phonetically (the actors in this production pronounced it something like “shockrun”). In this play, Boucicault has the odd instinct to set a light comedy against a backdrop of the Fenian uprising. Various couples of young lovers come together in the traditional Shakespearean fashion, and a wronged young man (Kevin O’Donnell) must clear his name with the law or risk going back to the Australian “transportation” penalty from which he has escaped. His aid (and occasional hindrance) in all this is the low comedy role, the titular rustic played by Patrick Fitzgerald.

Despite the Shakespearean plot structure, Boucicault, however effective he may be as an artisan, ain’t Shakespeare — meaning the script isn’t overflowing with memorable, quotable, rich text.  Theatre in the 19th century was the actor’s art, which means such plays lean heavily on charisma, electricity, stage effects, gimmicks and the like. I say this with no intention of disparagement, by the way, quite the contrary. Those qualities define what theatricality IS. Boucicault wrote the part of Conn, the shaughraun for himself to play, and you can tell from the way it is constructed, that much hilarious business — business that you cannot script — was part and parcel of the experience. Unfortunately, the current production lacks that very magic. It’s one truly effective moment is the appearance of a real live dog at the top of the play. The pooch is very well trained and the audience is beside itself with happiness at his very existence. From there, unfortunately it is downhill. But it needn’t be. Though it is a truism that NO ONE can compete with a dog on stage, one must at least strive for that level of effect, especially in the melodrama. The production shied away from the sort of stylized performance in which the play was written to be played; the drunkard is not funny enough; the villain is not scary enough; the fights are not bloody enough; the music is canned and it should be live. It’s all very middle-of-the-road and muted.

Matters weren’t helped any by the inexplicably weird set, which featured a miniature model house and ship that weren’t used and that we scarcely looked at, and a cottage painted to resemble an Irish countryside exterior. I think the designer must have been thinking a lot of thoughts, or perhaps none, but either way it doesn’t serve the play.

In the end all of these problems must be laid at the feet of director Charlotte Moore. We have a solid and historically popular play; a quite excellent and experienced cast (I didn’t perceive any actual bad performances, just rudderless ones); and a cockamamie set. It’s the cook here, not the ingredients, that make this a rather lackluster stew.

Still? I recommend it. Why? Boucicault deserves more than being the footnote he’s become, and you deserve to be familiar with his work. You’ll have your chance from now through June 12. Info is here.

Thanks to the Countess for some of her insights.

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