Donmar Warehouse, London – until 22 September 2018
I’m watching the O’Donnell family’s voluntary mute, aged uncle slowly peel away wallpaper at the of the back of the stage when I should be listening to whoever is speaking. Later an imaginary game of croquet will similarly distract me.
This is my problem with Aristocrats, there is often a lot happening and sometimes it too easily diverts attention from the central narrative. Brian Friel’s play is about a fading Irish aristocratic family with its domineering patriarch on his deathbed, cared for by the eldest daughter Judith (Eileen Walsh).
The family has gathered for the wedding of youngest daughter, Claire (Aisling Loftus) with her siblings Alice (Elaine Cassidy) and Casimir (David Dawson), having travelled from homes abroad for the occasion.
Tom (Paul Higgins), a visiting American scholar, is interviewing the family for a research paper on Irish aristocracy and acts as an independent observer and, through his seemingly innocent conversations and questions, commentator.
What we see is a family riven and damaged by an autocratic and overbearing father and by the expectations of their class. Each bears the psychological scars, can’t function within the family but neither can they properly function outside of it. There are some interesting personal stories and at times deep irony at play; I’m not hard-hearted enough not to see the sadness and tragedy in some of the narratives.
However, at times the pace feels morosely languid which allows background ‘chatter’ to overpower.
The actors mostly remain on stage, sometimes they’ll just sit still at the back, at others ‘in scene’ activity will continue, for example, going to answer the phone and then sitting having the (silent) conversation in the background.
The peeling of the wallpaper and croquet are the peak of the distractions and all too easy to zone into.
Is it the fault of the staging or the play? Or was I just not quite interested enough in the fate of an upper-crust family fallen on hard times?