Donmar Warehouse, London – until 22 September 2018
DREAMS AND LEGENDS OF DECAY… Brian Friel’s gift is humane ambiguity, refusing to allow tidy judgements on his characters. Or even – though his theme is Ireland’s history – on the social structures they inhabit. Here the ‘great house’ and family above humble Ballybeg, now reaching decrepitude in the 1970s, is not a Protestant Ascendancy mansion lording it over the Catholic peasantry.
It is something rarer, more tribally cramped: a once affluent Catholic family, one of those who rose after the 1829 Act of Emancipation through the legal profession. Now in four generations, it has fallen, from a Victorian Chief-Justice down to a county judge and finally a failed solicitor, the nervy, fantasising Casimir. As Eamon the outsider (a spirited Emmet Kirwan) cruelly observes, the next logical step down should be to a criminal.
So they belong neither to the old Anglo-Irish ruling class nor to the ordinary people of Ballybeg: theirs is an isolated grandeur. All the siblings were sent off at seven to board, the absent Anna is a nun in Africa; a brother and sister ran off to fight in the Civil Rights battles over the border in the North.
But Judith has come back, after surrendering an illegitimate child to a nunly orphanage. She is nursing their confused and angry tyrant of a father, whose rants we hear over a baby-alarm on the wall, and watching over Claire the youngest (a touching Aisling Loftus) whose musical career was thwarted by her father and who, depressed and nervous, is heading for marriage to an ageing widower. Casimir, named for a Polish saint, claims a possibly invented family life in Hamburg; alcoholic Alice alone mixed with the village and married Eamon, whose granny was a maid in the Hall.
If this back-story sounds cumbersome, I am wholly to blame. Friel, as usual, delivers it with casual pinpoint delicacy, dropping clues, as they gather together in the crumbling house for the wedding and, it turns out, a funeral. Director Lyndsey Turner is adept at bringing Friel’s world to life with spare, haunting precision: it is set on a clear stage , though Es Devlin’s design makes great effect with a fragmented mural finally torn loose, and a miniature dollhouse around which the family legends of old-posh-Catholicism are related to a visiting historian. On this spot GK Chesterton fell over while impersonating Lloyd George, here Gerard Manly Hopkins spilled tea while reciting the wreck of the Deutschland, here Belloc sat, or Newman, or the Papal Count crooner John McCormack….using the tiny house emphasises the futility of it all, as fragments of past glories are rattled out by Casimir in a stunning, sad, tense performance by David Dawson. His impossible memory of Yeats’ eyes, and the moment when he claims his grrandfather heard Chopin play at Balzac’s birthday party in Paris while he was avoiding the Famine fever are with awkward tact questioned by the American visiting historian. You wince.
Casimir is at the heart of the play, the most damaged, his bullied inner child flailing for past glories. Eamon at first mocks them, yet in the end he too needs the Great House, with a startling, perceptive Irish plaint : ”Peasants…we were ideal for colonising”he cries despairingly “there’s something in us that needs the aspiration”. Elaine Cassidy gives his wife Alice a fragile, angry misery, and David Ganly as Willie Diver, who farms their bog and rocky land, brings a baffled fond solidity. But the ensemble, the real sense of interlocking relationships, is what brilliantly locks you in to this damaged world.
Calling Friel the Irish Chekhov is trite now. But it is all there: the grandeur and delusion, the pull of a half-invented past, the drink and despair, the half -lives and lies, hope and the humour . And at last, redemptive, an unexpected harmony.
Box Office 0844 871 7624 to 22 sept