Anyone who believes issue-based political dramas only arrived in the 1970s will be shocked by “Mixed Marriage,” St. John Ervine’s tragedy unearthed by the unstintingly enterprising Finborough Theater. Premiered in 1911 at Dublin’s Abbey Theater and unseen in London in 90 years, it presents a plea for tolerance amid religious sectarian violence and embeds it into a family drama. Although its analysis is sadly still relevant a century later, its dramaturgy remains immured within its time.
“What religion is she?” That’s the question beadily asked by suspicious John Rainey (Daragh O’Malley) of young Nora (Nora-Jane Noone), who is stepping out with his son Hugh (shiningly idealistic Christopher Brandon). Nora is Catholic, which goes down extremely badly with staunchly Protestant Rainey.
Hugh has persuaded his father, something of a working-class hero, to put his religious views aside to urge local Protestant and Catholic workers to join together in the struggle against the bosses. But when John discovers that Hugh and Nora are going to marry, his class analysis is subsumed beneath religious hatred with fatal consequences.
On Richard Kent’s set of a nicely shabby home, the actors work hard to invest their roles with more dimensions than Ervine’s earnest characters actually provide. Fiona Victory is busily maternal, looking askance at her husband’s intransigence and hoping for the best. And dogged O’Malley gives weight to a man defined by obstinacy who refuses to budge. It’s the younger generation, however, who come off best, with Noone and Brandon holding back on the thwarted lovers scenario.
The difficulty facing director Sam Yates is that all the ideas and intentions of the text are so plainly spelt out that audiences stay far further ahead of potential plot developments than the characters. In order to keep things going, Yates keeps the pace up and runs the original four-act play in 80 minutes without a break. Yet he still finds time for repose, filling transitions with characters isolated in David Plater’s coolly atmospheric light.
The play’s good intentions are of genuine historical interest, but on the strength of this production, it’s unlikely anyone will be spearheading a St. John Ervine retrospective any time soon.