In the long history of humankind, is there a square inch of ground left that somebody has not killed for? I doubt it. There’s a longing deeply embedded in some people that compels them to hunger for land, just as others might hunger for vindication, for food or for fulfilment. The hunger for land might mean nothing to the herders of the Rift Valley, or the North American plains Indians. It might mean even less to the Inuit, and it certainly means nothing to me. Yet, when I came away from the Quarry Players’ production of The Field last night, I felt at least a little understanding of the ancient rage that drives people in their desire for land.
Bull McCabe is not a contented man. He’s a slave to his own lust for possession. He’s a thug, a bully and a hypocrite. Despite his physical presence, he’s a pathetic man who carries no authority except the threat of violence to his neighbours.
It’s a simple story, and yet one that audiences all over the world have understood. When the widow Butler decides to sell a field she rents to Bull, he’s outraged. After tending to it and improving it for five years, he reckons he has an entitlement to it, and he won’t see any outsider bidding more for the land than he’s prepared to give. But McCabe and no-one else will set the price.
It all ends in murder, as you knew it would, but to my mind it also ends in worse. The Bull McCabe ends up as a prisoner of the man he and his son have killed, like the Ancient Mariner condemned forever to be draped with the carcass of the albatross he shot.
It wakes up all sorts of questions that may well mean little or nothing to city people, but which resonated with the rural Irish of the mid-sixties when the play was first performed. The play deals with themes of rural isolation, the suffocatingly judgemental nature of Irish society in those days, the domination of clerics and the overwhelming communal silence that allowed otherwise decent people to hide awful deeds. To my mind, it goes beyond a single murder, and points to the mindset that allowed an entire society to maintain silence about other abominations within our borders. If we could be quiet about a murder, why would we not keep our own counsel about the industrial schools that blighted the countryside? Why would we not remain silent about the Magdalene laundries? Why would rural communities in particular not keep their mouths shut about people committed to mental institutions so that avaricious relatives might inherit a farm?
Just like the Bull McCabe, perhaps those nuns and those Christian Brothers were slaves to the people they had wronged, abused and oppressed. Perhaps they were left with no option but to continue the abuse over generations, or else confront what they had done.
The Field goes far beyond a single killing. John B Keane, from his benevolent perch behind the bar of his Listowel pub, cast a shrewd eye over this dysfunctional society and did his best, within the constraints available in 1965, to highlight its ugliness. Watching it today, in 2012, after all we’ve witnessed, the play makes uncomfortable watching, but in the unreconstructed Ireland of 1965, it must have been nothing short of subversive.
What of the Quarry Players production?
Paul McCarthy is Bull McCabe. Tim Evans is the Bird O’Donnell.
The set design is convincing, the stage direction draws in the audience and the pacing holds your attention from start to finish.
I didn’t expect to be so impressed with this show, and I certainly didn’t expect to find myself still pondering Bull McCabe’s awful dilemmas twenty-four hours later. This is fine stuff. If you have a spare evening, go along for a look before it ends, but beware the Byzantine ticketing system. Prices are a secret, but I can tell you that they’ll either cost you €15 or €17. Don’t tell anyone at the Belltable that you heard this here. As I said, the prices are a secret.