‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ review

Lyric Theatre, Belfast

26 Aug- 27 Sept 2015

The chance to see a performance of Brian Friel’s masterpiece ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ has long been an ambition of this reviewer, having greatly enjoyed studying the play at school, as have, I suspect, all serious students of Irish literature since the piece became part of the canon.  This production by the Lyric, as part of the inaugural Lughnasa International Friel Festival, has therefore been a particular highlight of the shows critiqued for this blog, and a truly rewarding night of local theatre.

Narrator Michael invites us into his memory of life with his mother and four aunts in the summer of 1936, in the Donegal town of Ballybeg- the last time the whole family will ever be together.  The return of two men into the Mundy sisters’ lives, Michael’s father Gerry and his uncle Jack, disturbs the quietly frustrated stillness of the sisters’ existence, while mention of a new glove factory opening in the neighbouring town foreshadows disaster for the household.

Although meant to be summoning the ghosts of his past in order to try and make sense of them, it was Michael who felt like a spirit haunting proceedings throughout this production, from his still, eerily calm presence at the table on stage long before the lights went down, waiting for the audience to arrive, to his remaining in shadow during the scenes with the sisters, voicing his physically absent younger self, to his speaking to us beneath pale blue light during his own monologues.  He represented the ghost of the future, the impending sadness and disappearance of the sisters’ lives as they know it, his kites, lying unattended in the small space to the left of the stage a quiet, unspoken reminder of how fragile the life the aunts have built for themselves, largely around him, is.  We could see on a very basic level that he was not really there.

Charlie Bonner, as Michael, had a somewhat challenging job as the narrator, a character, as written, arguably nowhere near as interesting as the aunts, tasked with informing us of the sad realities that will ultimately spoil the flawed but warm household we see on stage, and he responded to it in interesting ways.  Throughout the play there was something almost apologetic about his body language, whether appearing ready for confession sitting at the table with clasped hands before the lights dimmed, hovering uncertainly while speaking to Maggie or Kate from the shadows, or sitting not-quite-comfortably while observing the rest of the drama.  There was, for this reviewer, something of the guilty man about him- delivering his speeches as though seeking some subtle forgiveness for their content.

Of the five sisters, the most interesting characters remained, as in the text, Kate, Maggie and Rose.  Cara Kelly as Maggie was the beating heart of the piece, a wonderfully warm, bubbly, motherly presence, quipping about woodbines and the absence of men, teasing Michael with bets and riddles, mourning the misfortunes of an old friend many women would have resentfully viewed as a successful love rival, and wholeheartedly encouraging younger sister Christina’s romance with Gerry Evans, however likely it is to end in heartbreak.  Kelly conveyed the soul of a woman who believes in living, in experience, in feeling, and in grabbing hold of any small opportunities for such things whenever they appear, in contrast to the restraint and self-denial of Kate.

Catherine McCormack, notable for being the one actor on stage to have also played a role in the film adaptation, albeit in the role of Christina, brought something very fascinating to the part of Kate.  Written as a complex, but ultimately far sterner character by Friel, McCormack was striking for her much kindlier take on the part.  Her first scene, greeting Michael outside upon her return from town, approached the same levels of warmth as Maggie, while her clear, barely-disguised delight at Agnes’ insistence on going to the harvest dance, made her eventual surrender for the rest of the play to the strait-laced, proper guardedness the character knows so well, all the more frustrating.  Here was a woman, in McCormack’s hands, whom we could see early on had an open heart yearning to be set free, but sadly, never allows herself the chance.

Mary Murray brought an expected vulnerability to the part of Rose, her developmental disability on the one hand making her the most innocent sister, and thus best placed to observe and comment on the inherent unfairness of the Mundys’ lives of self-denial, and on the other hand, the sister most in danger of being led astray or falling into misfortune, making the audience worry for her.  Murray’s blunt one-liners, along with the exuberance of Cara Kelly’s Maggie, evoked most of the best responses from the audience in this reviewer’s showing, and her eventual fate, as relayed by Michael, remains as bitterly sad as ever.

The one downside to the sheer enjoyability of these three actresses’ performances is that they inevitably steer interest away from the remaining two sisters.  Catherine Cusack did well with the little that Friel teases out about Agnes’ secrets and backstory, faring best in a flirtatious exchange with Gerry as he larks about in a tree, and her outburst to Kate for being a ‘righteous bitch’, but the character remains defined by her bond with Rose, who, through no fault of the performers, simply demands more of our attention.  Similarly, Vanessa Emme as Christina was, for this reviewer, unfortunately overshadowed by much of the rest of the drama, her interactions with her sisters providing little as memorable.  By contrast, her more relaxed behaviour around Gerry, and her quite mesmerising silent fury while watching him dance with Agnes, gave Emme something much more interesting to do, and it’s a shame the play doesn’t allow for more of this.

Cara Kelly aside, Matt Tait brought the most vibrant energy to the play, his lively, charming, energetic Gerry wholly believable as someone who could seduce two of the sisters and get away with only periodically returning to their lives, and his song and dance routines with Christina, Agnes and, briefly, Maggie, lifted the atmosphere out of melancholy and foreboding, and brought glorious, if fleeting, escapism.  In Tait’s hands, the character was thoughtless but not cruel, weak and red-blooded rather than deliberately callous, and it was hard to find his take on Gerry anything other than likeable.

Declan Conlon, as returned missionary Father Jack, felt, interestingly, like a grim spectre haunting the sisters, appearing at random intervals with his long coat and stooped demeanour, hands clasped behind his back like an inspector assessing the state of the household.  His exchanges with Kate, and less than enthused reactions to some of her views, in contrast to his obvious approval of Christina’s circumstances with Michael, and lingering love for the more open customs of his time in Africa, had the air of unspoken rebukes, creating the overall impression of a ghostly figure willing the family to live more and embrace other ideas and ways of being before it’s too late.

With such a good cast and a classic of Irish literature in her hands, one suspects Annabelle Comyn enjoyed every moment of directing this play, and it certainly shows.  Great fun was had for the audience in everything from Gerry’s dances with the women, to Rose’s dropping of the dead rooster in front of the rest of the family, while the sisters’ reaction to Gerry’s initial arrival and conversation with Christina provided a great opportunity for a subtle display of the women’s contrasting personalities- Maggie, with a genuinely happy expression, having no qualms about openly watching from the window, Agnes painfully tense with her knitting, Kate more outwardly calm with her newspaper, but nevertheless betraying her frustration every few moments with demands to know the progress of the scene outside.  The play’s iconic dance sequence, meanwhile, with the five sisters transformed into shrieking pagan priestesses, was as electric as one would hope and expect it to be, startling and wild, ,and building in intensity over several minutes, before leaving us disorientated but exhilarated as Marconi prematurely cut out.  If one criticism were to be had, it would be that the scene is almost too sudden, the background music of the radio barely begun before Maggie loses all control- it would have been interesting to see if letting the moment build for a moment or two more would have worked better.

The set and staging, meanwhile, were a mixed affair.  The textured steel overhang representing the roof of the Mundys’ home, while imposing and lending itself to a subtle sense of dread, proved distracting in its reflectiveness at times, drawing the eye, certainly from this reviewer’s vantage point halfway up the seating rows, away from the action on stage, while the actual house set, although suitable on a thematic level in its sparseness, felt underwhelming, doing little to suggest the feeling of a real home.  Then again, much popular interpretation of the play would suggest this is entirely appropriate.  It is perhaps for individual audiences to decide.

‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ remains a rich, sad, funny, vital, uplifting, and deeply atmospheric piece of work.  Some of the cast here shone a little brighter than others, and the staging might not be to everyone’s taste, but the direction was spot-on, and the play as a whole utterly enthralling.  The central dance sequence alone, as expected, lingers long in the mind after the final bow.

Script*****

Performances****

Production***

Christopher Moore.

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