Dancing at Lughnasa
By Brian Friel
Directed by Annabelle Comyn
Advert on phone box, central Belfast
Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Wednesday 9th September 2015
Charlie Bonner as Michael Evans
Declan Conlan as Father Jack Mundy
Vanessa Emme as Christina Mundy
Cara Kelly as Maggie Mundy
Catherine Cusack as Agnes Mundy
Mary Murray as Rose Mundy
Catherine McCormack as Kate Mundy
Matt Tait as Jerry Evans
L to R: Chrissie, Maggie on table, Rosie, Agnes.
There’s a very long row of Brian Friel plays in Foyles, and I looked last weekend, but Dancing at Lughnasa wasn’t among them. This is the 25th anniversary of its premiere. I’ve only seen one Friel play before and that was Translations when my daughter was studying it for A-level. My nephew studied it for A level ten years earlier. It’s a Pass Notes perennial. Dancing at Lughnasa was festooned with awards, and is considered one of Friel’s greatest works.
Years ago, in Kyoto, Japan, a very sincere American who worked in Tokyo, said the best part of travelling to different towns was attending a service in the local church. Our equivalent pleasure is the local theatre, and so the Lyric Theatre in Belfast for this play, a splendid 2011 theatre it is too, though we were glad to be in Row C up close to the action rather than high up in the very raked seats.
The Kitchen table: L to R: Maggie, Agnes, Chrissie, Kate
The structure of the play centres around Michael, the narrator, recalling 1936 in Donegal when he was seven years old, and his mother (Chrissie), father (Jerry Evans) and four aunts and uncle. Michael is often speaking to the audience stage left, while characters address his invisible seven year old self stage right. They also address a “non-speaking” imaginary seven year old. When is now? The play dates from 1990, so if that is “now” it makes him sixty-one, which he doesn’t look at all. I guess “Now” is 1929 (seven years old in 1936) plus whatever is the actor’s age. He says he traced Agnes and Rosie “twenty five years later” so in 1961 … hang on, I’m going into Cliff / York Pass Notes mode here! Apologies. The structure involves the spotlight hitting him for linking narration, and the lights fading on the rest of the stage, while the Mundy sisters freeze (sometimes) or move in slow motion (other times) in the background. The rural kitchen set (with very realistic range, i.e. stove) has a black cloth behind it over a relective surface through which a shadowy mirrored stage can be seen … very vague and blurry from our position, quite possibly sharper higher in the theatre.
L to R: Kate, Chrissie, Agnes, Maggie, Rose (Act Two costumes)
The casting gives us five sisters who look perfect, assisted by costume and hair to accentuate the rural 1936 poverty. Kate and Agnes are lean to the point of gaunt, Maggie rounder, cheerful, wild-haired, Chrissie self-contained, always elegant even in her one frock, Rose is the “simple” one, and maintains a slack-jawed truculence throughout. Of course, the acting is perfect to support this, but hair, costume, physical appearance all help. Maggie, Rose and Agnes in Act One are in tattered poverty. Kate, the schoolmarm head of the family has a smart frock, as does Chrissie, younger than the rest, and the unmarried mother.
Rose (Mary Murray) and “Marconi” (the radio), Act Two costume (she won’t tell where she’s been)
Michael starts and ends the play, and watches and narrates throughout. The chronology is distorted so that he tells us about what’s going to happen to the characters later but we then go back to 1936. Act one is 100 minutes, leaving Act two, set three weeks later, as short. So for example, we know right at the beginning of Act two that Agnes and Rose will leave, but come back to scenes with them there. Act one probably adds 5-10 minutes (or so it seems) on silent housework drudgery. Maggie mixing chicken feed, Agnes knitting gloves, Rose dropping peat in the stove, Chrissie ironing Father Jack’s no longer used surplice. The drudgery is important.
Agnes (Catherine Cusack)
The play has an intrinsic problem. After the sheer exhileration of the wild dance by the five Mundy sisters in Act One, with Kate, the schoolteacher sister, doing a severe hands to the side Riverdance step while the others go wild like whirling dervishes, you spend the rest of the play waiting and hoping for an encore. In the script, Maggie keeps telling old jokes so I’ll repeat an old one from Private Eye. You’re in the wings of a theatre watching Riverdance out on the stage, and the stage manager is shouting “Oh, no! Look what I’ve found!” and is brandishing a book entitled: Traditional Irish Dance, Volume Two, Arm Movements. But it was great theatre, brilliantly performed here, especially Kate circling them in strict Riverdance steps. Nothing looks so uptight as the riverdance steps.
The rising expectation had me anticipating a wild ending. We learn that Father Jack, while in Uganda went native and got absorbed in Africa ceremony and ritual, sacrificing a cockerel or a goat, dancing for days with the lepers in honour of pagan gods. Near the end, they pick up Michael’s kites decorated with devil faces, and Rosie comes in holding a very realistic dead cockerel, her pet, taken by a fox (or not). Jack is talking about his ceremonies, and he looks perplexed at the kites. Right! You think, This is it! Wild orgiastic ritual dance, skirts up to the thighs, Jack stomping and chanting, fantastic ending … but it doesn’t happen. Michael delivers a poetic speech (and makes a fine job of it) while the women move in slow motion. The end. A major, major damp squib for me. And I do realize how highly acclaimed the play is, and I hadn’t read it (Foyles not having a copy.)
Christina (Vanessa Emmes) and Jerry Evans (Matt Tait)
A quibble. Jerry Evans is the commercial traveller who fathered Michael on the unmarried Christina. The Hays Office, censoring early American cinema, forbade storylines about commercial travellers and rural girls, by the way. Matt Tait brings the Billy Liar character to life, and the charming rogue channels Harry Enfield in looks and Estuary accent. Matt Tait has to dance, sing and act, and he does a nice imitation Armargh accent too. Now Friel’s script says he’s Welsh, from Wales, has a wife and family in a South Wales village. He has an English accent. The guy does so much so well, that I wouldn’t force a Welsh accent on him to boot, but it’s such a tiny script change to say he’s from (say) Essex, and has a wife and family in a small (Essex) village. The fact that he’s Welsh is irrelevant. Basically he’s an incomer, a stranger. Why stick religiously to those three or four words in the script?
Jerry Evans (Matt Tait) with kites and Father Jack’s hat
While we’re on accent, I assume Jerry and Father Jack speak in English accents so as to distance them from the sisters’ community. They are now outsiders. Declan Conlon is a wonderful Father Jack, and also has a beautiful speaking voice. Look at his name and his great long list of Irish theatre credits. Father Jack has been away 25 years. He was a chaplain in the English army in East Africa. He has an English accent here. As well as losing his religion in Africa, he has lost his accent. It works well because it distances him from his five sisters … he would have gone away to a seminary, then worked for 25 years, speaking Swahili, rarely speaking to an English person as he says … hold on, so how did he acquire an English accent? I see no conceptual problem … my mother and aunt were born in South Wales, in a mining family, left at fifteen, and had not a trace of Welsh accent by the time I knew them. My companion lived in Belfast till she was eight, and lost her accent in Bournemouth after a year of being made to read aloud by a cruel teacher while the rest of the class laughed at her accent. So yes, he might have lost his accent. Is it predicated in the text? It makes sense, going with the religion. I don’t know. I’d just expect a sister to mention it.
Charlie Bonner, as Michael the narrator, was actually born in Donegal, and his accent was soft and pleasant. Another lovely speaking voice.
The sound plot was meticulous and hard to do with radio crackles, and the “Marconi” (i.e. the radio) coming and going. I was disappointed in Act two that the dancing was confined to Jerry and Chrissie, then Jerry and Agnes, and ballroom in style, to 1930s popular song. I’m sure Radio Athlone, a name I recall on our old radio dial and mentioned here, would have played the popular songs of the day more, or as much as Irish jigs and reels, but I wanted more wild Irish music and dance. On the dance, even during the bows, I hadn’t given up hope, as I expected them to do a Royal Shakespeare Company / Globe Theatre “encore dance” but they kept Friel’s low-key ending. As a construct, I thought it blew its best stuff in Act One, and that we were led up the garden path by Father Jack’s African mysticism. So a beautifully acted and directed play, I liked it more than Translations, but Friel’s storyline under-achieved for me.
£3. RSC or Globe quality. It makes me fume even more at the Cumberbatch Hamlet £8.50 programmes, nowhere near as good or informative.
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