tue 18/06/2024

Dancing at Lughnasa, National Theatre review - largely ravishing Brian Friel revival | reviews, news & interviews

Dancing at Lughnasa, National Theatre review - largely ravishing Brian Friel revival

Dancing at Lughnasa, National Theatre review - largely ravishing Brian Friel revival

Modern-day classic returns to the building where it was first seen in London

Lift off: the Mundy sisters take flight to the musicJohan Persson

It's saying a lot when a production lives up to its gasp-inducing set. That's the happy case with Josie Rourke's loving revival of Dancing at Lughnasa, which returns Brian Friel's modern-day classic to the building, the National, where this Olivier and Tony Award-winner first played London over 32 years ago.

Upgraded this time round to the open expanse of the Olivier stage, the play occupies an Irish backwater from designer Robert Jones that seems to stretch to infinity and beyond, the vista defined by a striated stage curtain (it looks beaded, but isn't) itself suggesting the porousness of memory. The impression is a self-enclosed community that will be revealed to be hauntingly vulnerable to the world at large as we hear of five unmarried sisters during harvest season in County Donegal in the summer of 1936: the narrator is their nephew, Michael (the wonderful Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, pictured below), looking back with affection and anguish on a past that, you feel, continues to inform his present. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Michael in 'Dancing at Lughnasa'If that weren't the case, the play wouldn't exist, given the affinities between the rhapsodic wordsmith, Michael, and Friel himself, who has rooted Lughnasa in his own experience. I saw Patrick Mason's career-defining original production of this play in London, Dublin, and on Broadway, and its shimmering power has in no way been dimmed. This production may throw different aspects of the play into bold relief - the emphasis here is very much on oldest sister Kate and less so on the heartsick, ever-knitting Agnes (Brid Brennan won her own Tony for that performance) - but the play's sense of ectasy dampened down by circumstance, and worse, allows its putative intimacy to fill the reaches of the Olivier which, in fact, doesn't seat that many more than did Lughnasa's original Broadway berth. 

The play offers a snapshot of a particular time, both as lived and also as recollected. Michael ambles to and from centre-stage, like Friel's own version of Tennessee Williams's Tom, introducing us to the dynamics of the female household of his childhood (he was 7 in 1936) and letting us know the hand that fate would deal to these women in the sequel that Friel asks us to write for ourselves.

Michael has been born out of wedlock to Chris (Alison Oliver), following a fling with a Welsh charmer, Gerry Evans, who reappears now and again to tease the sisters with his presence: Agnes (Louisa Harland) harbors her own affections for Gerry, whom we soon discover responds mostly to the gift of his own gab. Tom Riley plays the role with no discernible Welsh accent but with lots of peculiar affectations as if this new recruit to the Spanish civil war were instead hellbent on a career impersonating Charlie Chaplin. Chris has the measure of the man when she calls him a "bluffer", only for Gerry to appeal his cause to the adoring Agnes, whom he takes for a spin to the music of Cole Porter.

Their duet to the tune of "Anything Goes" is an important dance break. The more celebrated one in this play is the extraordinary scene in the first act in which the women, singly but then collectively, succumb to the ceili band whose sounds come pouring forth from their dodgy Marconi - the family's first wireless. Leading the frenzied charge is the ever-playful quipster Maggie (Siobhán McSweeney), whose heartiness exists a beat away from the heartache she has known.

Justine Mitchell as Kate in 'Dancing at Lughnasa'Soon, even the assertively "proper" Kate (Justine Mitchell, splendid, pictured right) is letting loose, the siblings caught up in an ecstatic surrender that finds them careering about the stage even once the clamorous sounds have stopped. Youngest sister Rose (an engaging Bláithín Mac Gabhann), the "simplest" Mundy sibling, clomps about gaily in her Wellington boots, not yet knowing that her beloved white rooster will before long be dead. Disappointment is this play's flipside to rapture, and the sequence captivates afresh, even if Wayne McGregor's choreography has about it the feeling of a set piece that wasn't the case with Terry John Bates's spontaneous-seeming eruption of movement all those years ago.

The cessation of the music, which stops as abruptly as it began, finds a parallel in the narratives of some of the sisters, not least Kate, whose job as a schoolteacher is nearing an end, and also Agnes and Rose, whose home-knitting handiwork will soon be co-opted by factories. Mitchell movingly charts the cumulative stress that has come with being the family carer and transmits considerable warmth in a role (played by Meryl Streep in the film adaptation) that can founder on the shoals of sternness. 

There is another man on view besides Gerry: the much fussed-over Uncle Jack (Ardal O'Hanlon, the Father Ted star in blinding form), who has returned after a quarter-century away at a leper colony in Uganda. While abroad, he has embraced a paganism that is shocking especially to Kate who wonders aloud "what has happened" to a household that, we learn, will soon cease to exist, Jack's mental confusion emblematic of a larger chaos to which the Mundys in varying ways will all succumb.

And yet the genius of this play is to enfold its sorrow in a profound, empathic embrace that acts most definitely as a homage to family members viewed throughout with fondness. You sense the indebtedness and love felt towards all these women and Rourke and her colleagues' share in those emotions, too. And when the cast sways in barely perceptible unison to Michael's closing monologue, you're caught up in a vision of reality filtered through illusion, language Friel's point of departure for that unknowable realm that exists beyond words.

Justine Mitchell transmits considerable warmth in a role that can founder on the shoals of sternness


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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