High Drama — Frank McNally on Gaiety gods, simple Sadbhs, and Dublin street theatre

All the world’s a stage

I attended the Gaiety’s production of Sive at the weekend from a seat in the gods. And maybe it was the thin air up there, but I was struck by how engaged the (mostly youthful) audience around me was with the action far below us.

There were audible intakes of breath at surprise developments on stage, and murmurs of shock or disapproval at the scheming adults bent on marrying off the innocent heroine to a rich old man.

It was unclear whether this was ironic crowd participation, as in a pantomime, or if it was the spontaneous reaction of a generation new to theatre. No doubt the distance from the action was a disinhibiting factor too – there is more noise up there in general.

Either way, the production won a standing ovation at the end, at least on our balcony. Which isn’t saying much these days, where such tributes have become routine.


But then again, the last two plays I’d seen – The Quare Fellow at the Abbey and Krapp’s Last Tape at the Project – had earned only sedentary applause, which seemed almost damning by modern standards.

I didn’t join the Gaiety’s standing ovators myself, still reserving that for special occasions. But perhaps influenced by the dramatic crowd reactions earlier, I did sit a bit closer to the edge of my seat while applauding.


Among several things that somewhat date John B Keane’s play today, arguably, is his simplified spelling of the eponymous character’s name.

Mind you, back in 1959, even that was a challenge for some. Having been rejected by the Abbey, Sive was first performed in Keane’s native Listowel, from which its fame belatedly reached Dublin, causing Irish Times critic GA Olden, to confess:

“In spite of its great current celebrity, I know so little about John B Keane’s first play, ‘Sive’, that to this hour I am uncertain how to pronounce its title.”

Olden might have found a clue in another Kerry town, Cahersiveen (whose name derives from a diminutive Sadbh of mythology, the wife of Fionn MacCumhaill).

But regardless – or because of – the challenges it represents to the uninitiated, and far from simplifying them, many latter-day Sadbhs positively delight in their mutated consonants.

Readers may recall that before the storm season of 2020/21, the list of names agreed between the met offices of Ireland, the UK, and the Netherlands included a Saidhbhín, which seemed likely to provide a steep learning curve for broadcasters on the neighbouring island.

Alas for enthusiasts of such sport, even as we munched our popcorn in anticipation, the storm passed with little incident. As theatrical meteorology goes, it was no Hurricane Ophelia, that’s for sure.

But 2021 was probably not a vintage year for violent weather. Saidhbhín’s alphabetical neighbours – Phoebe, Ravi, Tobias, and Veronica – don’t seem to have left much of an impression either.


King Street, on which the Gaiety stands, forms part of the southern boundary of what has become one of one of Dublin’s most fashionable districts. Full of cool shops and bars, it lacks only a catchy name of the kind it would have in New York.

In this vein, there was an attempt some years ago to call it SoDa (South of Dame Street), but that initiative seems to be brown bread – in every sense – now.

Conversely, back in the early days of the mobile phone boom, I once proposed it be named the NoKia (North of King Street) district. That didn’t take off either, which is maybe just as well. We’d have to explain to younger people now what a Nokia was.


Whatever it’s called, you don’t have to go to the Gaiety there to see theatre. On the corner of Exchequer and South Great George’s Street recently, for example, I and other passers-by were treated to a two-act drama worthy of the stage.

It began with the sight of a nervous greyhound, which had been walking along the footpath with its owner, suddenly almost jumping into the path of a car. The animal had been startled by a man who had himself just emerged from the side door of Dunnes like a dog springing from the traps at Shelbourne Park.

Except that he was weighed down by a medium-size household appliance – possibly a microwave or air oven – in a box, which slowed his sprint towards the corner, where he scampered right in the direction of Dame Street.

He was soon followed by a security man of Indian appearance (I mention this last detail only because he looked like he had chased down a few cricket boundaries in his time).

The pursuer was light on his feet, but the man with the box had a potentially decisive start and would soon have a choice of side alleys into which to disappear.

There followed a short, suspense-filled interval, during which I bought bananas and a newspaper. When I came out of the shop a few minutes later, there was the security guy at the traffic lights, catching his breath.

Unlike the Canadian Mounties, he hadn’t got his man. He had, however, got the oven.