Lady Betty 1989 (British Premiere)

Previous Performances
Declan Donnellan's first play is a wild, poetic piece of Irish drama as earthy as the peat bog, as sharp as the smell of smouldering sod and as vigorous as a fiercely danced jig... challenging and exhilarating, this is powerful stuffTime Out

Produced by Cheek by Jowl

Find out more by visiting the entry for this production in our archive
Sally DexterBetty
Tim McMullanJohn / Oliver / Captain Mills
Gerard O'HareFather Malloy / Michael Flynn
Catherine WhiteNight / Bridie O'Byrne
Lawrence EvansSilence / George / Rev Blakeney
Phil McKeeCold / Liamog Hanrahan
Roy McBrideO'Leary / Liam Hanrahan
Charlotte MedcalfMrs Mills / Peggy Hanrahan
Patrick ToomeyDunno / Christie O'Flaherty

DirectorDeclan Donnellan
DesignerNick Ormerod
MovementJane Gibson
MusicPaddy Cunneen
Lighting DesignerBen Ormerod
Company Stage ManagerLouise Yeomans
Dialect CoachSally Grace


There is a marvellous moment in Lady Betty at the Almeida when the turnkey of an Irish jail steps out of the play's 18th Century audience. It is, he declares, a "terrible thing" to come to the theatre and see a play like this, "all grunts and screaming."

Grunts and screaming certainly feature prominently in the absorbing Cheek by Jowl production but there is no need for any apology. The company, which is best known for its inventive staging of often neglected classics, is here tackling a new work for the first time; the first play, indeed, of its own artistic director, Declan Donnellan. It is a rich, dark Irish stew of a drama, which will haunt the memory of those who see it for a long time to come.

The play is based on a true story, documented by Oscar Wilde's father, Sir William Wilde, but it has all the resonance of a folk legend. In Roscommon at the end of the 18th Century, Betty, a desperate, starving woman, unwittingly murdered for his her own son, who had been adopted from birth. She was condemned to death, but the hangman disappeared on the morning of her execution; the half crazed woman saved her own life by offering to hang her fellow convicts, a task she enthusiastically undertook for the next 30 years, making charcoal drawings of her victims before their death.

The imposing jail still stands in Roscommon where Declan Donnellan spent his boyhood and you can see the window through which Lady Betty led condemned men onto a balcony, where the scaffold was erected with a three storey "drop".

Donnellan's play and his own atmospheric staging, has the haunting power of a myth. Peat burns in a brazier, filling the theatre with its rich, alien aroma and nooses hang from the ceiling. Parts of the story are told in ballad form, with the cast playing fiddles and drums, singing and performing traditional step dances. The poverty of the Catholic peasants and the injustices of the Protestant ascendancy form the background against which the disturbing tale is told.

The language is rich and earthy and there is no attempt at documentary realism. In her hovel before the murder, the raving Betty is attended by her only companions, Night, Silence and Cold, eerily impersonated by actors and she displays a terrible tenderness to her victims; gallows humour abounds throughout the play.

Despite one or two longueurs, "Lady Betty" resembles a good horror story, creating a morbid spell which creepily holds its audience in thrall. Sally Dexter, performing wild jigs, screaming horribly, muttering dark curses and oozing a grotesque sexuality, makes a truly nightmarish figure of the hang woman: and there is fine ensemble work from the rest of the company, most notably from Ray McBride who provides some much needed light relief as the corrupt turnkey O'Leary and from Lawrence Evans as a charming, fleet footed personification of Silence. Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph. 2 December 1989
Lady Betty, the subject of this lovely new show from Cheek by Jowl, was the hangwoman of Roscommon Gaol who unwittingly mudered her own son and saved her own neck by breaking those of her fellow convicts. Sir William Wilde, Oscar's father, mentioned her as "the unflinching priestess of the executive for the Connaught circuit" but she operated chiefly in Roscommon, probably, we are told, between 1780 and 1810.

Director Declan Donnellan, writing his first play, compiles around these facts a flinty, poetic drama of ghosts and visions, songs and tirades, Irish jig competitions and political tensions between the rural Irish and the English aristocracy. In some ways, it is a companion piece to the National Theatre Fuente Ovejuna Donnellan directed earlier this year, but there is more ethereal ambiguity here in the relationship between Betty an the ruling class, more sense of the supernatural, as befits the subject. And the subject is subject to the sexual whim of the nobleman, whose son she sires.

Narrative links are condensed in song and terse dialogue, so that concentration is fierce of the crusial flash points in the story. Betty is soon a hovel dweller waylaying the traveller, her son, at the behest of three figures of Night, Cold and Silence. The terrifying Dawn is represented by a bare-breasted, radiantly lit songstress wielding a sword, while the act of murder is one of comfort and assurance in charitable arms.

Instead of an interval, the show has a vaudevillian introduction to the sights of Roscommon Gaol, conducted by the turnkey O'Leary, played by Ray McBride, the world champion Irish step dancer. The special Roscommon drop, a platform flap on the third storey is pointed out, while Betty and a political activist, Michael Flynn (Gerard O'Hare) are measured for neck size and weight by the hangman who then does a bunk.

The one slightly over skimped aspect of the story is the transition achieved by Betty a survivor prepared to pull the bolt and a mythical dispenser of justice who has hanged a people's champion. Sally Dexter achieves the elision in her performance however, adopting the guise of an elevated peasant grotesquely made up to receive her whipping boys, clutching them in the same foetal embrace in which she held her son victim and ordering her community to dance noisily and resentfully on the spot for ever and a day.

The indelible image is of an abused community being kept under the thumb for as long as they dance and blow pipes, but Miss Dexter leads them longingly and voluptuously by the nose. Donnellan has reassembled the Fuente Ovejuna production team - his regular designer Nick Ormerod, the choreographer Jane Gibson and the composer Paddy Cunneen. Their work, and that of this versatile, small company, is of the highest class. There is nothing sentimental or Oirish here.

In addition to the witch like animalism of Miss Dexter, one notes the chiselled upper crustiness or Tim McMullan and the shivering, admonitory ghostliness of Catherine White, Lawrence Evans and Phil McKee. A rare treat. Michael Coveney, Financial Times. 1 December 1989
"What is that tapping?" asks Lady Betty (Sally Dexter) in the small hours of the morning she is due to be hanged. "It is the feet on the stairs of the jail," "And that clicking like an oul clock?" "It is the key in the lock. It is the window slamming open." "What is that whistling?" "It is the wind, whispering his song" "Jesus, what is that big pink thing? Is it a rose? Or a river?" "It is the face of Roscommon lifted to the dawn" "What has made the faces sing?" "Despair."

Lady Betty, Declan Donnellan's first play and directed by him for Cheek by Jowl takes the stage like a penny dreadful broadsheet, a dark dance of survival presented with the refined wit and audacity of the company's style. It draws strongly on the tradition of Irish poetic theatre, but adds a political anger and surrealist daring closer to Lorca than Yeats.

When Betty is rejected by the village after having an child by the local landowner, she is projected by the figures of Night (Catherine White), Cold (Phil McKee) and Silence (Lawrence Evans): Night is a cowled redhead with gleaming blind eyes; Cold a pugilistic automaton seeking to hold Betty in his grip; Silence leaps across the floor with great urgency while mouthing inaudible messages on fast forward like a lunatic who knows his is still sane.

Cold and Silence are two of three gifts to Betty from Night: the third is a knock upon the door. Her son returns grown up from England and, unaware of his identity, she kills him for his cash. With the kind of prompt symmetry found in fold fable and classical legend, bare breasted Morning (Lucy Tregear) arrives to announce another three gifts to the starving protagonist: gold, blood and a letter.

The letter reveals the relationship between the dead man and the woman who stabbed him in an erotic Pieta. How exactly Betty reacts to to this revelation is the least clear thinkg in the play (and the mystery is compounded by the launching of a second plot) but she distances herself from the horror by with drawing into the third person when speaking of herself.

She continues to rejoice in her notoriety and revenge onteh cruel community just as, at the start of the play, she raises her knees in the air like a Maenad and hursl earth at the feet of the peasants to stamp her story into life. When no man is found to hang her, she buys her life by becoming hangwoman of Roscommon Gaol, famous throughout Connaught for the skill with which she administers the Irish Long Drop from a window on the third floor. She becomes, in the words of Sir William Wilde, "the finisheress of the law."

It is a true eighteenth century story, turned into a thrilling musical play, accompanied by dancing actors on fiddles and single headed drums. The jig has rarely looked both so subversive and so like the drilled, perpetual rhythm of oppressed Irish life.

Lady Betty uses the same Donnellan team that gave memorable life to Lope de Vega's Fuenteovenjuna at the National Theatre earlier this year: Paddy Cunneen (composer); Jane Gibson (movement) and Nick Ormerod (design). The result is an ensemble moving and sounding with unusual single mindedness, led by Dexter as the anarchic and voluptuous termagent, with her great head of hair and her great grin full of teeth; she is tremendous in the rouge, rings and feathers of a Rowlandson whore and invincible in the great wreck of a crimson gown. Michael Ratcliffe, The Observer. 12 November 1989