Theatre Review: Mixed Marriage

Still sadly topical 100 years on, St John Irvine’s Mixed Marriage is a powerful piece of theatre

The key to great art is its timeless relevance. Nevertheless, it would be nice to think that a play written over 100 years ago about Belfast’s sectarian divide would be at least a little out of date today. Instead, Mixed Marriage by St John Irvine, first aired at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, arrives on the Lyric Theatre stage as topical as ever.

Set in pre-partition Ireland, and directed by Abbey Theatre stalwart Jimmy Fay, Mixed Marriage finds the working classes of Belfast in a fragile alliance as both Catholic and Protestant strike for higher wages – a whole extra penny an hour. Unwilling to make that concession, the ‘masters’ are stirring up religious dissent between Protestant and Catholic. John Rainey, the stern patriarch of the Rainey family, finds himself caught between his class and religious loyalties.

Rainey is a staunch Orangeman – a portrait of King Billy hung in proud position over his hearth – with no love for the papish. However, he believes that he has to ‘take me share in [the strike], same as the rest. The workin’ class has to hang together.’. So when Sinn Feiner Michael O’Hara appeals to his class loyalties – and flatters him that he could ‘bring an end to bigotry’ – Rainey agrees to help keep the Protestant workers supporting the strike.

Yet when he discovers that his eldest son plans to marry a Cathlic, Rainey doubts that he made the right choice.

Played by Marty Maguire (The Odd Couple, A Night in November), Rainey is an surprisingly sympathetic protagonist. Puffed up and red-faced, he’s a unforgiving man and an bigoted one. Maguire, however, does a masterful job of carving out the humanity under the vitriol, with moments of deftly applied humour and weakness.

There is even a hint of redemption, as his hard attitudes soften enough that he condemns a Protestant for attacking a Catholic. Small enough concession, but huge for Rainey. Of course, redemption has little place in a tragedy.

Maguire gives a powerful performance, but it is Katie Tumelty as the good-humoured and sweet-natured Ma Rainey who threatens to steal the show. Bustling around the set, her hands rarely still or empty of mending, she undercuts her husband’s pomposity with sniffs, snorts, rolled eyes and what can only be described as the occasional stink-eye (Tumelty also has an impressive line in angry soup-eating). Yet her abiding affection for him and love for her children is clear as she fusses and fends for them, always delving into her apron pockets.

One of the most powerful moments in the play is highlighted by Ma Rainey’s sudden, uncharacteristic stillness, as she runs out of things to do to take care of her family.

The younger generation do a good job of holding their own stage, bouncing well of Tumelty and Maguire’s performances. There is a familiarity to their bickering interactions that can be hard to capture on stage. Karen Hassan (who stars in the upcoming BBC production The Fall) and Brian Markey (Titanic Boys) as Hugh do a good job as the love-struck young couple, catching both their determination and uncertainty about their romance. Younger brother Tom (Darren Franklin, Macbeth, Give My Head Peace) pulls off the often thankless task of playing the fool, his common-sense wisdom dismissed with a clip around the ear from his father.

Gerard Jordan (The Fall, Game of Thrones) deserves special mention as the impassioned O’Hara. Jordan brings a heavy physicality to the role, giving O’Hara’s thwarted idealism a tangible presence on-stage. His character might stand-for peace and solidarity, but he is not immune to the hatreds that infect his fellows. In one scene he paces restlessly as he argues with Rainey, wrapping a loose bandage around his hand like a boxer and then unwrapping it again. It is a mute, nicely understated, bit of physical theatre that says a lot about the character. Subtle touches like this are something that director Fay does well, from Ma Rainey’s collection of socks to the subtle preening from Tom when Nora joins the table.

Mixed Marriage is Fay’s first crack at an Irvine production, but he sure-handedly wrangles both the claustrophobic narrative – with all the action taking place in the Rainey’s King Billy decorated front room – and the almost aggressively opaque Belfast vernacular into a fast-paced, perfectly controlled jaunt of a play. He pulls a nice bit of directorial misdirection with Rainey, giving him a harmless, Alf Garnet air as his bigotry is dismissed or mocked by his family. It makes it easy to laugh at him, until all the humour is abruptly sucked away and Fay starkly serves up the hate Rainey can’t let go off.

There were a few missteps that jarred me – albeit briefly – out of the otherwise immersive world of the play. Mostly the surprise appearance of an angry leprechaun during an eerie, rewound dream-like interlude towards the end of the play. Looking back, I can see that it was the parodic spectre of Home Rule that was used in political comics and pamphlets to terrorise and divide. In the moment, though, it was an angry leprechaun that appeared out of nowhere.

Fay’s alteration to the climax of the play also failed to quite gel for me. It was a little too on the nose, as if he didn’t quite trust the audience to otherwise pick up the themes of the play.

Other than those minor nit-picks, however, Mixed Marriage is a thoughtful and enjoyable piece of theatre. Although without doubt an issue-play, it rarely feels preachy and is so compelling that the 75 minutes spent with the Raineys (sans interval) speed past.

 Mixed Marriage is at the Lyric Theatre until February 23