Donmar Warehouse, London – until 22 September 2018
Amazing to think it’s nearly 40 years, 1979, since Brian Friel wrote Aristocrats and 13 years (2005) since the National revived it in a Tom Cairns production which included a budding Andrew Scott.
Scott played Casimir, the younger son of old judge O’Donnell, Friel’s dramatic symbol of a world withering on the vine and, in true Chekhov style, ‘in denial’ as to the reality of the family’s decline in fortunes and influence.
But then Chekhov ran through Friel’s enormous oeuvre like a seam through a stick of seaside rock. As well as adapting Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya, he also turned his short story, The Lady with a Little Dog into a new play, The Yalta Game, and brought two characters, Sonya (from Uncle Vanya) and Andrei (from Three Sisters) into a final afterthought in Afterplay (2002).
Not unlike Sebastian Barry’s much later The Steward of Christendom (1995) which centred on Barry’s great-grandfather, a Catholic policeman in charge of Dublin Castle during the fight for independence, Friel is regarding another old Catholic relic and fading authority figure.
The O’Donnell family have lived in ‘the big House’, Ballybeg Hall for generations but O’Donnell senior (the wonderful but here under-used James Laurenson) now only makes his presence felt and keeps in touch via a baby monitor – a typically bit of Friel symbolism of patriarchal authority, like the old house, losing its power and falling into disrepair.
Indeed, O’Donnell’s only physical appearance in this production comes in a dramatic end-of-Act-One moment, a pajama-sporting, decrepit figure collapsing at the sound of a taped Christmas message, recorded by his much-loved daughter, now a nun living in Zambia.
O’Donnell’s collapse is the cue for some much needed re-assessment.
© Johan Persson, David Dawson (Casimir) and Aisling Loftus (Claire), dreaming, playing with the past, not realising the present is about to catch up with them…
Up to this time, few of the siblings seem to have been aware of the true state of their ancestral home – neither the alcoholic, London based Alice, the young, piano-playing, shortly-to-be-wed Claire or the wildly fantasising Casimir whose lurches into tales of his Hamburg family (a wife and three sons), the great and good who came to the house and childhood memories are eventually but gently cast into doubt by Paul Higgins’ visiting American academic.
Tom is researching the family’s background for the super-awkwardly styled paper: `recurring cultural, political and social modes in the upper strata of Roman Catholic society in rural Ireland since the Act of Catholic Emancipation.’
© Johan Persson, Elaine Cassidy (Alice), Eileen Walsh (Judith) and the mural showing what it might have been like living at Ballybeg Hall a long time ago…
The ironically titled Aristocrats therefore follows a very familiar Chekhovian style of drama where `action’ arises almost solely out of the interplay of characters and its revelations, led by Eileen Walsh’s superb, heart-wrenching Judith – an amalgam of The Cherry Orchard’s unmarried, hardworking, chatelaine, Varya and Uncle Vanya’s Sonya – and David Ganly’s reliable, local odd job man, Willie Diver.
In Tom Cairns’ 2005 production, Friel’s Donegal fictional Ballybeg Hall was suggested by imperceptibly moving panels and high skies.
Turner’s production leaves more to the imagination in a minimalist setting whose only distraction is a steadily revealing, 19th century rural painting of the Hall and its inhabitants, silently, unveiled by Ciaran McIntyre’s Uncle George – another of the family’s old inhabitants.
Atmospheres are suggested; history collides with personal reminiscence; and fantasy and reality intermingle with a characteristically light Frielian touch.
© Johan Persson, Elaine Cassidy (Alice), Emmet Kirwan (Eamon) – husband and wife perhaps arriving at some kind of accommodation, eventually…
But Turner’s production of Aristocrats, for all of its poignancy and sweet psychological insights (particularly in David Dawson’s increasingly desperate Casimir and Elaine Cassidy’s Alice’s realisation of the love her husband, Eamon, has carried all these years for Judith) still comes over as too diffuse, less gripping than some of Friel’s other plays, Translations, say or The Faith Healer.
Aristocrats was apparently one of Friel’s favourites. For a man born originally in Northern Ireland, in Derry, Aristocrats does show once again his remarkable ability to understand and cross religious and personal boundaries.
Shame, though, that this time, it fails to grapple the heart with quite the keenness of some of his other work despite some lovely performances.
Interesting without being outright memorable.
By Brian Friel
Tom Hoffnung: Paul Higgins
Willie Diver: David Ganly
Casimir: David Dawson
Claire: Aisling Loftus
Judith: Eileen Walsh
Father: James Laurenson
Alice: Elaine Cassidy
Eamon: Emmet Kirwan
Uncle George: Ciaran McIntyre
Director: Lyndsey Turner
Designer: Es Devlin
Costume Designer: Moritz Junge
Lighting Designer: Paule Constable
Sound Designer: Christopher Shutt
Composer: Alex Baranowski
Movement Director: Jonathan Watkins
Casting: Alastair Coomer CDG
Dialect Coach: Majella Hurley
Costume Supervisor: Rosey Morling
First perf of this production of Aristocrats at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre, London, Aug 2, 2018. Runs to Sept 22, 2018
Review published on this site, Aug 12, 2018
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