‘In a summer of great Irish drama, this feels unsatisfactory by comparison’: ARISTOCRATS – Donmar Warehouse

In Features, London theatre, Opinion, Plays, Reviews by Maryam PhilpottLeave a Comment

Donmar Warehouse, London – until 22 September 2018

Lovers of Irish drama will be in their element this summer as London theatres host three major productions with a fourth – a new Martin McDonagh play – arriving at The Bridge in early autumn. Until then, a top-notch revival of McDonagh’s black-comic treat The Lieutenant of Inishmore is playing to packed houses at the Noel Coward with Aidan Turner no small draw, while equally beloved TV star Colin Morgan leads a wonderful revival of Brian Friel’s Translations at the National Theatre which examines identity, language and community at a pivotal moment in Anglo-Irish history. Joining them is a Donmar Warehouse production of Friel’s lesser-known play Aristocrats, a work so rarely considered that it hasn’t yet warranted its own Wikipedia page.

Written in 1979, just a year before the much stronger Translations, and peppered with the trademark Friel lyricism, Aristocrats never feels like an entirely successful construction. Previously staged by The National Theatre in 2005 with a then barely known Andrew Scott, Gina McKee and Derval Kirwan, as well as a 2014 production at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, this latest version will likely be a first viewing for much of the audience. Being Friel, it’s stuffed with themes and meaningful moments, but a relatively short run-time means its characters and dramatic arc never entirely convince.

At a now dilapidated “Great House” overlooking Ballybeg, the O’Donnell children gather for the wedding of Claire and her much older fiancé Jerry (who we never meet). With their ageing father slowly dying upstairs, cared for by elder sister Judith, the siblings reunite for one last event, Casimir travelling from Heidelberg, while Alice and her villager-husband Eamon return from London. An American journalist writing a book about Catholic Irish aristocracy becomes the catalyst for destruction as a sunny picnic is haunted by memory and dissatisfaction, and the fantasy begins to crumble.

Friel actively creates a Chekhovian flavour, paying homage to a writer whose work Friel adapted many times. Somehow, the play never quite reaches the subtle heights of its inspiration, but there are echoes of Chekhov in both the setting and many of the play’s themes. The poverty of the ruling classes is something the Russian dramatist referred to many times, as once-great families are forced to sell the ancestral home, to downsize while simultaneously watching former villagers rise in their place. We see this in The Cherry Orchard as Lopakhin, a self-made man from the peasant class, becomes the social equal of the nobility, and Friel reflects this in the marriage of Alice and Eamon, the grandson of the former O’Donnell housekeeper. And while considerably less successful, the switch from romanticised memory of happier days to the hard reality of money and change is pure Chekhov, forcing characters to face difficult truths.

Part of the problem is that to establish enough information about the family situation and how each individual fits into the story Friel has to include considerable exposition. So, much of Act One, which takes place across two scenes, feels like an elaborate set-up with clunky descriptions of how everyone came to be here told to Tom (Paul Higgins), the journalist, who becomes a rather crude expository device. Friel attempts to soften the blow by making us wonder how much of what we hear is true and whether the family are actively deceiving Tom or themselves in repeating the celebrity-filled stories they’ve heard about their family history. By the end of Act One, Friel has done enough to intrigue, but the overly forced set-up leaves you dramatically unsatisfied, which Lyndsey Turner’s production cannot quite resolve.

The notably shorter Act Two is much stronger. Set some days later where a crisis has been reached and the four siblings must now face-the-future, here the nods to Chekhov work much better, which in the Donmar’s production, brings with it a more sombre tone. While the business is briskly managed, there is a clear contrast with the wistful picnic scene, as you feel that childhood has been packed away and most of the remaining family members head-off with greater certainty about who they are, no longer clouded by delusion and fantasy.

The play is rather overloaded with themes and references that receive only cursory exploration. Friel hints that the now decrepit former Judge was once a terrible father to his children which, coupled with their mother’s suggested suicide, has affected them all in slightly different ways, although this is never fully uncovered. Equally, the focus of Tom’s research on Catholic aristocracy creates a sense of historic isolation around the family in a nation filled with Protestant landlords, and this is reflected in the O’Donnell’s lack of sentimental attachment to the house or the area. Turner uses this to imply a real separation between the family and the village, as though the two coexist but lacking the feudal concept of noblesse oblige. However, other than Alice’s business-like rejection of inheritance in Act Two, there’s little time in the story to really tease out the national, economic and political consequence of being in a Catholic noble family.

Es Devlin has created a simple duck-egg blue sunken stage littered with laced cushions, beautiful fruit bowls and blowsy peonies, that gives an impression of Edwardian Anglicisation. Until Alice walks on in her lurid orange 1970s maxi-dress, it is deliberately difficult to quite pin down the era, and Devlin’s modern box with classical accents reflects Friel’s concern with identity and external influences shaping Irish heritage. Rather than a fussy mansion set Devlin uses a dollshouse for simplicity (although this has become an overly common reference, last seen in The Inheritance), while the backdrop is slowly peeled away by one actor to reveal a classical scene of a mother presiding over a picnic, reinforcing this idea of the family suffering stemming from childhood trauma.

Despite the core family being dominated by the three sisters, it is the male roles that feel more substantial. David Dawson’s Casimir is a talkative returnee, eager to make the picnic just-so and thrilled by the chance to relive so many childhood memories and games. Casimir is an effete and light presence, so Dawson plays him as a dream-like figure, almost as though the whole character has stepped directly from the Edwardian past. This adds quite well to the concept of truth that runs through the show, and several times other characters question how real Casimir’s German wife and three children really are, which reinforces the eagerness of the fake croquet and similar games that shape the picnic scene. Dawson intriguingly plays-up this ambiguity so we’re never quite sure if his Casimir is a just pleasant man, delighted with his life or a fantasist hiding behind a pretence of family.

The sisters are distinct but not quite so well drawn. Elaine Cassidy’s Alice is a troubled figure, the only member of the family to truly embrace the late 70s aesthetic in Moritz Junge’s psychedelic costume for the character. Alice has relatively little to say for much of the show, hungover, she ominously stalks the picnic trying to find respite from her implied troubles that seem to proceed from more than just a headache. Cassidy conveys a deep dissatisfaction with Alice’s life, an alcoholic who is less than enamoured of her husband or this return to a place she once escaped. But Friel doesn’t give us the chance to find out much more, so we never really get to know how her childhood created the unhappy woman she has become.

Eileen Walsh as matriarch Judith doesn’t appear until well into the first Act, having spent years taking care of their ailing father. She has an interesting monologue at the picnic in which she describes her intense daily routine as a substitute mother-figure caring for sister Claire and tending to their father, in which Walsh implies an erosion of her own humanity that permanent service has caused. But later, Walsh also shows us some steel as Judith refuses to be guided by her siblings and deliberately ignores references to a former relationship with Eamon. Again, why Judith has ended-up here and what this means for her character are left unexplored by Friel, although her future doesn’t seem any more hopeful.

The baby of the family Claire, played by Aisling Loftus, is even more dreamlike than her brother Casimir who she is clearly closest to. About to marry a man more than 30 years her senior, we learn very little about Claire except her love of playing the piano – here depicted by holding sheets of music implying more O’Donnell fantasy – and playing games. An accomplished young lady in the traditional sense, Loftus’s Claire, like Dawson, becomes a hazy dreamlike figure, another echo from the Edwardian past. But the effect of her childhood, why she is seeking a father-figure and the relationship with her sisters is left aside.

Beyond the family, Emmet Kirwan’s Eamon is a gregarious figure with an undertone of something darker, a possible bully who we learn early on struck his wife the previous day. Interestingly, with antecedents in domestic service at the House, Eamon seems most protective of the place, expressing a possessiveness that the family don’t share. Friel tells us he was once a villager and, at one time or another, romanced all the sisters, but the nature of those relationship aren’t fully considered, even though Eamon represents the rise of the “new man”, coming to dominate the aristocratic people he would once have bowed to.

In a summer of great Irish drama, this feels unsatisfactory by comparison. Visually, director Turner’s image of broken modernity is an interesting one, with old and new pulling against each other throughout the play. With press night ahead this week, other than relishing the charm of Friel’s language, there’s little for the cast to improve because the faults in Aristocrats lie with Friel. This production draws-out all of the core themes but cannot overcome the play’s reliance on heavy exposition and failure to satisfactorily resolve its own questions about the past of these characters. If you have the choice, probably see Translations instead.

Aristocrats is at the Donmar Warehouse until 22 September. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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Maryam Philpott on Twitter
Maryam Philpott
Maryam Philpott has run the London-based Cultural Capital blog since 2013, predominantly reviewing theatre, but also exhibitions and special film screenings with a more in-depth and discursive approach. Since 2014, Maryam has also written regularly for The Reviews Hub, reviewing all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End, as well as contemporary dance, ballet and opera. She has a background in social and cultural history, and tweets as @culturalcap1.
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Maryam Philpott on Twitter
Maryam Philpott
Maryam Philpott has run the London-based Cultural Capital blog since 2013, predominantly reviewing theatre, but also exhibitions and special film screenings with a more in-depth and discursive approach. Since 2014, Maryam has also written regularly for The Reviews Hub, reviewing all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End, as well as contemporary dance, ballet and opera. She has a background in social and cultural history, and tweets as @culturalcap1.