Outside the Vic on a sunny, smoke-coloured afternoon, the superlatives fly freely on the blurb for Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa. The most famous work of Ireland’s best-known living playwright, Lughnasa won both an Olivier and a Tony Award with its 1991 premiere. Now it has been reverently revived by director Anna Mackmin. The notorious curmudgeon Friel (director Mackmin said that, during the auditions process, Irish actors would ask her sympathetically how she was getting on with him) receives total textual fidelity from Mackmin; speaking before the show, she says she altered “one word” of Friel’s script.
The story centres on 1930s rural Ireland and the last shared summer of the five Mundy sisters; Catholic spinsters, the youngest of whom, Chris (Andrea Corr, in a radiant stage debut) has an illegitimate son, Michael, aged seven. As an adult, Michael (Peter McDonald) narrates the story in retrospect, recounting the play’s events as childhood memories.
With a lavish set by Lez Brotherston that fits the Old Vic’s aesthetic under Kevin Spacey – productions that look as expensive as the snazzy American Airlines auditorium bar – it’s clear before curtain up that we’re dealing with A Classic. A comfortable classic: Friel’s most lyrical and least controversial play, Lughnasa presents a romanticised Irishness devoid of troubling historical specifics. Conveniently for London audiences, it’s an Irish play that – unusually – doesn’t mention what Frank McCourt called “the English and what they did to us for 800 years”. By presenting us with a world that Michael’s “When I look back” narration constantly describes as “lost”, Friel’s audience is soothed rather than provoked by this endlessly elegiac work.
Lughnasa’s set-up of spinster sisters and narrowing lives is undeniably reminiscent of Chekhov’s plays, which Friel has adapted five times since 1981; however, Lughnasa’s characters lack the life of Chekhov’s three sisters. Each of the Prozorov women, longing for city freedoms they never achieve (see what I mean about the parallels with Friel?), is filled with a full, distinct internal life. From the chaos of desires, inhibitions, and old wounds, Chekhov fashions an endlessly compelling drama. The emotions in Friel’s “Five Sisters” are much more tidy, the conflicts more obvious. Lughnasa never manages to break out of its opening set-up, and is chiefly notable for the opportunity it affords to unite five talented actresses. As with the recent revival of Madame de Sade (starring Judi Dench, Rosamund Pyke, and others), the cast’s strength enhances Lughnasa’s unremarkable script.
The sisters are superb: their detailed interactions with the set and each other – making bread, unpacking endless items of shopping – ensure there is always plenty to watch. As the eldest sister, the devout Kate, Michelle Fairley uses a savage constancy of voice and physicality to bring the schoolteacher’s tragedy to life; desperate to bind her family together, she instead ends up driving it apart. Arguing passionately for duty and responsibility, Kate’s creed now seems the least sympathetic of the play. Fairley really understands the ensemble dynamic, and is able alternately to eschew and command centre-stage from moment to moment. When it’s her time to be seen, she is arresting. Notably, all four women are at their strongest when playing opposite her.
Niamh Cusack’s ebullient, expansive creation of Maggie, the “family joker” who tries to temper Kate’s rigidity, provokes the feelings such a big woman would create in such a small house; she convincingly overcrowds the space. But even if it’s an honest choice, it’s not entirely successful. Against the control and understatement of the other women, Cusack’s huge gestures and husky vocality feel self-consciously stagey. Although often engaging, Cusack’s performance also annoys: she slows the pace with her solo performance when what interests the audience is the progress of the play.
Simone Kirby’s Rose, the middle sister with unspecified learning disabilities, could have all the embarrassment of a bad Ophelia, but instead brings out Mackmin’s eye for subtleties. To the memorable horror of Fairley’s Kate, Rose is conducting a love affair with the unseen (and perhaps unscrupulous) Danny Mack. After an afternoon’s unexplained absence, Rose returns to her terrified sisters apparently unharmed, unaltered. She looks fine. Then we see: at first silently, then under dialogue, Aggy moves to her, and quietly rebuttons Rose’s open blouse. A dreadful stillness covers the theatre at that moment, but Kirby’s passion, as Rose defends the peace Danny has brought her, turns the story from the abuse of a child to the consent of a woman with intelligence, depth and desire.
It is sex, then, rather than poverty that threatens the sisters’ unity: above all, the sexual threat of Gerry, Michael’s feckless father, whom Chris (and not just Chris) passionately loves. Jo Stone-Fewings is the play’s comic core, revitalising the elegiac pensiveness of the sisters and the occasional slowness of Friel’s style. Deepening an underwritten role, Stone-Fewings’s mix of clowning tragedy and high farce suggests more self-awareness than is usually given to Gerry: this chancer knows he’s a failure more than he’s a charmer. There is a whole other play to be written about him.
The botched structure of Friel’s script makes the play’s ending unsatisfying. Michael’s narrative rattle suddenly interrupts the action to tell us all the fates of all the characters before, abruptly, returning to action that now feels meaningless. We are told that Aggy and Rose will flee the family, for reasons neither Friel’s script nor Macklin’s direction explain. Stronger direction, willing to defy Friel’s ambiguities and find those reasons, would satisfy an audience who sit blinking through Michael’s final, softly surreal monologue, fobbed off with more elegy when what they want is an end to the story. Better still, give such talent, such direction and such money to a more vital Friel script – Translations, for example, or his Cherry Orchard. The pleasure of this revival comes not from the lines Friel writes, but from the images Mackmin and her ensemble create: Maggie, baking real bread before the Old Vic audience; Rose, standing dishevelled before her sisters; the unexpected sensuality of Aggy, lifted into Gerry’s arms. The joyful naturalism of these moments works far better than the slow poetry of the unlikeable Michael’s narration. This Lughnasa needs more dancing.
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.