In a few thousand years, what will people know of our time? What great myths will circulate about those who lived now and the choices they faced? When the fine details of history are reduced to broad brushstrokes, who will stand like a colossus over the postmodern age? Our politicians, our generals, our teachers?
Already we speak of "sporting legends." Names like Babe Ruth, Mohammed Ali, and Michael Jordan have already attained a kind of cultural currency which makes their evocation a shorthand for the character of their time. In Irish soccer one name stands above all (right now): Roy Keane.
Now, this may seem like a lot of preface to a review of a new musical comedy, but it is actually essential to understanding what is going on. A visitor to Dublin’s fair city hearing the good word on the street about I, Keano might well be tempted in to the Olympia in the hope of something they will enjoy as much as the Irish seem to. What they will find is a farcical and faintly amateurish play-length lampoon laden with in-jokes and sub-texts comprehensible only to the cognoscenti, yet one that has been ingeniously wrapped around a metaphoric superstructure which makes it both easy to follow and very entertaining.
The events which inspired I, Keano took place during the 2002 World Cup, when star player Roy Keane fell out with Irish team manager Mick McCarthy. In a barely grown-up version of a kindergarten name-calling incident (only with stronger language), the conflict raged across continents and media while Ireland held its breath. Without Keane, many feared, the team had no chance at all. The country was divided on this issue almost as passionately as over any political or social question in recent memory – all praying for a happy resolution that seemed to slip further from grasp with each twist in this remarkable (and, really, honestly, when it came down to it, childish and trivial) tale.
Arthur Matthews and Michael Nugent have transposed these events onto the iconography of ancient Rome, where the great general Macartacus (Dessie Gallagher) is leading his army into battle on distant shores, only to encounter resistance from his greatest warrior, Keano (Mario Rosenstock). Torn by feelings of duty to his country and resentment of his general, Keano is tempted by a nefarious wood-nymph (Gary Cook) with promises of immortality as he contemplates whether to take part in the war, all the while seeking counsel from his private god Fergie the Dolphin (a stand-in for real-life club manager Alex Ferguson… it’s a local thing). Keano’s team mates meanwhile ‘prepare to fail," and the aging hero Quinness (Risteard Cooper), egged on by wife Surfia (Tara Flynn), makes one last bid for glory in acting as a peace-broker.
It is surprising how well the true incidents in the Roy Keane affair translate to a classical setting, and how each event breaks so neatly into scenes which make up acts and move towards an inexorable (tragic) climax. Though the jokes are very parochial, the broad strokes are entirely comprehensible, and the decision to cast the entire affair as a musical merely makes it even more transparent. The songs range from cheerful Broadway-style ballyhoos and country and western drawls to disco-era anthems and cheesy pop ballads. Nothing is taken especially seriously, and the obviousness of the parody, coupled with the deliberate incongruity of the accents with the costumes and iconography keeps the audience laughing at everything.
Yes, on some level the whole thing feels like an over-extended music-hall sketch, the kind of tongue-in-cheek skit which used to be done on television where celebrity guest stars ended up the butt of various topical jokes cracked by well-known entertainers. Low brow it may be, but that doesn’t make it ineffective. There is a definite "rightness" to this particular gag, and the play feels like it makes its point even above the celebrity caricature and copious profanity. The Roy Keane affair has been writ large on the face of contemporary Irish popular culture, and this is a matter of some interest from the point of view of any observer of Irish history. Like the not unrelated Alone it Stands, I, Keano affirms the importance of sporting legend to a people’s sense of itself, and even though Matthews and Nugent (and a game cast of comedians known for radio and television work) don’t draw much attention to it, they have got it exactly right in form and content – this is postmodern history as it will doubtless be remembered, in all of its monumental inconsequentiality.