Review: Mixed Marriage, Finborough Theatre

Originally written for The Public Reviews.

Religious divides and love against the odds are the timeless themes married up in St John Ervine’s searing 1911 drama, another of the neglected works dusted off and polished up at the Finborough Theatre. Ervine’s star-crossed lovers are Protestant Hugh Rainey (a compelling Christopher Brandon) and his Catholic sweetheart Nora Murray (Nora-Jane Noone), a couple whose ill-fated match threatens peace-making efforts in a restless Belfast. No prizes for guessing that this is all likely to end in tears.

In a city divided along lines of Protestant and Catholic, Hugh and his passionately determined Catholic friend Michael O’Hara, played with a rousing sense of injustice by a fiery-eyed Damien Hannaway, are at the centre of efforts to unite downtrodden workers in a Catholic-organised strike, aiming to transcend religious rifts in the common cause of the working man. In the middle of this mix is Hugh’s father John Rainey (Daragh O’Malley), a staunch Protestant who is convinced by the promise of ending bigotry to support the strike leaders’ cause. But when it comes to his own home and the proposed marriage of his son to a Catholic girl, John turns out to be a little less all-embracing.

Hypocrisy is the substance of John’s character; the normally reasonable, intelligent man who proudly fights the cause for peace but brings war into his household. O’Malley is a commanding presence as this headstrong patriarch, but John functions more as a symbolic vehicle for Ervine’s message than as a living, breathing, feeling man. His final stark words are a terrifying indictment of how blind religious fervour can push out rationality and compassion, but would be even more potent from the mouth of a man we were persuaded to truly believe in.

A secondary, intriguing concern of Ervine’s is the position of women in what was essentially a battle fought by men. With long-suffering wife and mother Mrs Rainey, Ervine has the opportunity to dissect the damaging effects of violence on the relatively powerless female population of conflict-torn Ireland, an opportunity that is regrettably wasted. Ervine’s matriarch talks herself into ridicule and insignificance, a relentlessly chattering woman whose sheer volume of speech robs her words of power. This is not aided by the flustered performance of Fiona Victory, who is sometimes dangerously close to a cardboard cut-out stereotype of the fussing Irish mother.

Sam Yates’ direction is carefully engineered around the small space of the Finborough and the taut energy that he has injected into his cast evokes the tensions of the world outside without giving the audience so much as a glimpse of the trouble on the streets. A more delicate touch would not be amiss in places, although this could well be prohibited by a script that flirts with the melodramatic and has a tendency to hammer home its emotional and political messages.

The troubles in Northern Ireland may have passed the peak of their ferocity, but religious divides continue to cleave at communities across the globe and turn rational men into perpetrators of mindless violence, rendering Ervine’s play enduringly and tragically relevant. It may lack subtlety, but that hammer – particularly when wielded in the hands of Yates – still packs a mighty punch.

Mixed Marriage runs at the Finborough Theatre until 29 October.

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