x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Irish play Big Maggie comes to Dubai – all set to turn tradition on its head

Irish playwright John B Keane's lesser-known work Big Maggie will be staged by Dubai-based Danu theatre group at Ductac this weekend.

Danú's production of John B Keane's play Big Maggie, directed by Padraig Downey, stars 11 actors of various nationalities. Courtesy Danú Theatre Society
Danú's production of John B Keane's play Big Maggie, directed by Padraig Downey, stars 11 actors of various nationalities. Courtesy Danú Theatre Society

When the late Irish playwright John B Keane’s creation Big Maggie opened on stage in 1969, the idea of a woman seeking independence and economic stability by inheri­ting her dead husband’s assets and driving her children away seemed alien to a crowd brought up in a traditional, caregiving, matriarchal society.

The Dubai-based Danú theatre group puts up its version of the lesser-known Irish play from June 4 until June 7 and the team believes a modern audience may see the supposedly cold-hearted character of Maggie Polpin in a different light.

“The character of Maggie is tenacious,” says Padraig Downey, the producer and director who obtained the rights to premiere the play in Dubai. “And I think it will shock the audience in a good way. The thing that really made me choose this play was her. She is someone who tries to manipulate and destroy her family – a Medea-type character.”

Big Maggie begins with the title character becoming widowed and acquiring her husband’s farm and shop. She seizes control and severs all relationships with her children, with devastating consequences. The play was Keane’s attempt to attack what he considered a facade of tolerance and politicised martyrdom that rural Irish mothers were bound by in the 1960s. Maggie fiercely defends her property and rights, warding off her family and unwanted suitors.

“I want the audience to understand why she does what she does throughout the play, but at the same time I’m interested and curious to learn whether people will have sympathy for her or whether they will be totally against her,” says Downey, adding that he also wanted to stage a play that would explore similar cultural roots to the Middle East.

The production features 11 characters played by a multinational cast between the ages of 17 and 42. “The thing with Irish drama,” says the director, “is that it tends to be quite traditional and is linked with many other countries in that way.”

That the play hasn’t been in the repertoire of many theatre companies around the world made it even more appealing to the producer. “It is one of Keane’s masterpieces, but an overlooked play as well,” says Downey.

His production will have a younger actress playing Maggie, a digression from older actors featuring in previous adaptations.

“I thought a younger actress would work better. My own mother got married when she was 20; it wasn’t uncommon back then for women to get married young. So I think this character must have married a much older man when she was only 17. After 25 years of marriage, he dies and she still has this great lease of life and wants her independence. But at what cost does she get the life she desires?”

Downey thinks these social themes will resonate with the audience.

“It is seen as terrible for a mother to treat her children in such a way,” he explains, “especially when the mother was the head of the household and freedom didn’t come easy. But now equality is on the agenda for most countries and this will remind people that everyone has the right to be treated with equality, but at the same time being respectful of traditions and norms.”

Big Maggie is at Kilachand Studio Theatre, Ductac, Mall of the Emirates from June 4 until June 7 at 7.30pm, with an additional 2.30pm show on June 6. Tickets are Dh80 and available at www.timeoutdubai.com