The Field: An Irish Lear

the field 4

Come not between the dragon and his wrath

Before his return to the big screen in Jim Sheridan’s The Field, Richard Harris often surprised Joe and Josephine public by being very much still attached to this mortal coil. But Sheridan was wary of the hellraiser after so long a break.

“I did so many bad movies in the 70’s,” Harris once told the New York Times, “that I can’t even tell you the worst one. They were mostly tragic monstrosities. I did them because I didn’t really care any more. I just couldn’t maintain the discipline that theatre required. All my energies went into my sexual exploits and my drinking. Peter O’Toole had that, Richard Burton had it — that kind of self-destructiveness. Yet we felt indestructible. We thought we could always put ourselves back together again, no matter what we did.” It had been eight years since he had acted on screen. Although he was a self confessed carouser, he had been canny enough to make a small fortune in California real estate, and took over the rights to Camelot, the musical, from Richard Burton. He toured the production for five years, never having to work again.  By 1990 though, he was hungry once more.

He seized on Sheridan’s adaptation of the 1965 play by Irish playwright John B Keane. It tells the story of  Bull McCabe, an imposing patriach in the “wild” west of Ireland in the mid-’30’s, obsessed with the field he has cultivated, from barren rock to prime grazing land for his cattle. Yet he does not own it; he rents it from a proud Widow (Frances Tumelty). She refuses to sell and has been subjected to nightly torments (unbeknownst to him) by his son Tadgh (an early role for Sean Bean), an impressionable young man of weak backbone, forever in his father’s dominant shadow. A conflict boils over when the land is eventually put up for sale, and McCabe’s alpha male status is fatally challenged by a rich American (Tom Berenger), who wants the land to begin a string of hydro electric plants in “the old country”.

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!

As stated earlier, Sheridan saw him in a cameo role at first as the priest, but Harris won him over by force of personality, inhabiting the role before him in his living room. Harris, mixing Shakespearean allusions, compared The Bull as “King Lear” to his to Frank Machin’s “Hamlet” in This Sporting Life. “Lear, too, is all about passing on land — his patrimony. But Bull is also a Greek classic creation, because he shows that you can’t fight destiny..”

The field is both comfort and burden to The Bull, a provider and source of security, and a wedge driven between him and his family. His elder son Seamie committed suicide at 13, after his father told him the field could only sustain one family after his passing, and Tadgh would have to emigrate. His wife (Brenda Fricker) has not spoken to him in the 18 intervening years. The Peaty pulchritude contrasts against his pugnacious overbearance.

Man’s life is cheap as beasts

Harris saw in The Bull a “Spiritual paganism…a force of nature.” Sheridan felt: “The Field is a story about a land war that is under the surface. It’s about Ireland itself, whether we own the country or not. It could be Iran or Spain, a lot of places have that problem. It does appeal but more on an old-fashioned primitive emotion level.” When Tadgh’s head  is turned by a Traveller’s daughter ( a breed The Bull despises as rudderless, adrift from the land) and the body of the american he inadvertently killed is discovered, The Bull’s mind finally unravels. Herding his cattle to the cliff’s edge, they stampede the eloping Tadgh to the waters below. Maddened by grief, The Bull furiously dashes his rough wooden staff against the fiercely rushing waves, trying, Canute-like, to turn back the tides of time on a life of willful, unbending self-destructiveness.

AAAAAaaarrrgh!!! (Get used to this, Sean)

AAAAAaaarrrgh!!! (Get used to this, Sean)

Harris got nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe for the film – the only recognition of note, for many critics felt it was stagey and overwrought, a histrionic anachronism harking back to The Playboy Of The Western World. Audiences disagreed, myself among them. The issues of emigration, jobs and sustainability in Ireland are in even more sharp focus with the demise of the “Celtic Tiger”. And that’s no Bull.

Originally posted 2014-04-01 21:42:09. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Read and post comments on this article