Shining a light on a faceted jewel
PUBLISHED: 15:43 11 March 2009 | UPDATED: 17:23 16 August 2010
A kitchen table on a stone-flagged floor, a black cooking range, a yellow country sink and a paraffin lamp hanging from the ceiling are all that is needed to set the scene of this Irish farmhouse in 1936,
A kitchen table on a stone-flagged floor, a black cooking range, a yellow country sink and a paraffin lamp hanging from the ceiling are all that is needed to set the scene of this Irish farmhouse in 1936, writes Edward Martyn.
An old tree spreads its branches protectively over the house to indicate a greater presence, and Michael (Peter McDonald) the illegitimate son of one of the household explains what his life was like being brought up by five sisters in an impoverished Irish backwater.
This is a device already used to good effect by Tenessee Williams in his Glass Menagerie and Brian Friel has copied this faithfully in Dancing at Lughnasa as the grown Michael stands outside his family home and comments on the action.
Kate is the matriarch of the family, a lovely nuanced performance from Michelle Fairley, as she tries desperately to hold down her job of schoolmistress to the local rag-tag children, and at the same time control her wayward sisters, who want to celebrate the Celtic festival of Lughnasa and attend a dance in Ballybeg, the local village.
Her sister Christina (Andrea Corr) has already let the family down by giving birth to Michael out of wedlock, and Kate is consumed with fear that the others will follow suit if they get too near the local lads.
The 'Marconi' radio blares out Irish dance music, and the girls leap and prance in wild improvised routines which even Kate cannot resist joining in with, although she confines her exuberance to traditional Irish dance steps around the outside of the house as Maggie (Niamh Cusack) jumps onto the kitchen table and leaps around in her work boots. It is a scene of medieval gaiety and points up the central theme of the play - should we embrace traditional ceremonies and beliefs, or should we shed the past and narrow our minds to one true religion which must be obeyed at all costs.
Suddenly, Michael's father Gerry (Jo Stone-Fewings) turns up, and the household is thrown into confusion. Everyone has a different feeling about this ne'er-do-well from darkest Wales.
This is a gem of a performance from an actor who knows exactly how to re-create the period, and revels in the way he can hypnotise the women with his rakish charm and his dancing skills.
Unfortunately, his skills do not extend to making an honest living and providing for his son and his son's mother. To avoid the whole awkward mess he enlists in the 'International Brigade' and is embarking for Spain to confront the fascists, who are taking over the country.
Now the girls uncle, Father Jack (Finbar Lynch) returns in disgrace from his mission in Uganda, where he has succumbed to the local customs, and 'Gone Native'. Kate takes him under her wing and tries to re-program him back to the Catholic faith and uphold the good name of the family.
This play is like shining a light on a many faceted jewel, and as it turns, the light shines off in different directions, briefly illuminating one person, or one problem and then another, leaving you with images and feelings that are glimpses of times past and times yet to come.
All the performances are real and touching (apart from Andrea Corr, who seems to hide, rather than reveal her true feelings) but they fail to really gel as a family, and need to take this extraordinary play to another level where the fracture and collapse of all their lives becomes a true tragedy which touches us all. Edward Martyn
* Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel is at The Old Vic, Waterloo from now until May.
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