National Theatre, Olivier – until 27 June 2023
There is particular genius in creating a play which doesn’t build to a showy debacle but grips you with the possibility of an unnamed crisis, and so finally leaves you with the deeper satisfaction of accepting that most lives and declines are not dramatic. Sadness and failure have their own grandeur, like the bleak back-hills projected behind Robert Jones’ sweeping vista of a set. In Josie Rourke’s deeply atmospheric production, rural Donegal desolation looms behind small domesticity, just as the pagan wildness of human nature threatens the threadbare sedateness of Catholicism.
Indeed atmosphere, says our narrator late on, is more real than incident. Brian Friel’s wonderful memory play is based on his childhood memories (do not be out off by the iffy film version). The narrator Michael, a loose version of the author, is remembering a harvest season in 1936 in a household of five sisters, his aunts and his mother whose unmarried local “shame” is counterbalanced by occasional visits from his father Gerry: a charming, exhibitionist, vaunting mountebank who promises and never delivers, but even more by the old-fashioned Irish sense of privileged glory brought by his priest uncle, Father Jack. The old man has been a local legend for decades, Ballybeg’s missionary envoy to lepers in Uganda. He is now invalided home and finding it hard to remember words after years of Swahili.
It isn’t all he’s forgotten or replaced: piously faithful Kate endures a couple of magnificent speeches from Ardal O’Hanlon’s Jack (yes, ’tis he from Father Ted) about the sensible superiority of African village spirituality and its jolly ceremonies, taught him by his houseboy and “mentor” Okawa. The boring District Commissioner vainly tried to get him to dinner to stop him going native, and the bishops and Pope were far away, so Jack did so with glee and clearly is never going to say the Mass again whatever Kate and the village want.
But Fr Jack, while magnificent, only appears late on in the long first half, because the story belongs to the sisters, and brilliantly. Siobhan McSweeney’s homely, cheerful, chain-smoking Maggie and Justine Mitchell’s schoolmarm Kate watch over flighty Rose and Agnes and the boy’s mother Christine – Alison Oliver. A thrumming anxiety attaches to every visit from Gerry. Christine is swept back into his charm every time, whether with a promise of a bicycle for her boy or his absurd late decision to go and fight with the International Brigade in Spain. “There’s bound to be something right about the cause, and it’s somewhere to go” must be one of the most brilliantly absurd coxcomb lines of any decade. Kate, of course, is distressed about them opposing the Catholic fascist side.
The nuance between the sisters is laid out with particular excellence in the famous moments when all of them, their untapped vitality breaking out, dance to their erratic radio. Four go full crazy, leaping even on the table, Irish maenads, while Kate resists until drawn in to caper, a touch more sedately, in the garden (Mitchell plays the part far more sympathetically than in many productions, no martinet schoolmarm but a woman clinging to structure in a crumbling world). It’s a tremendous moment. So is her weary strictness when, looking after the dippy old priest as he extols Ugandan village polyamory, she remarks that Pope Pius XI would not approve.
THE thoughtful richness of the play is fully realised here: its picture of decent people stuck in one of history’s troublesome corners. The 1930s were difficult times for all the non-privileged, and notably for women who were, after WW1, in “surplus” all across Europe. And we are only 15 years after from the partition of Ireland, marooning the six counties in decaying Britishness away from independent Eire. The weirdness of all this adult world is seen from a child’s perspective as Tom Vaughan-Lawlor leads us with gentle sadness through the memories which frame the play,. It’s all there, the sad absurdity of history.. Father Jack actually spent part of WW1 as chaplain to the British forces in East Africa: the child watches while, in the closing moments, the old priest’s Colonial cocked hat with feathers is ceremoniously swapped with wastrel Gerry’s straw hat .
\nationaltheatre.org.uk. to 27 June