Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Dancing at Lughnasa

Last night's energetic production of Brian Friel's 'Dancing at Lughnasa' at the Old Vic must be one of the best I've seen.

I can't imagine a better staging , the set consisting of an ancient cast iron cooking range, a kitchen table and an over-sized radio, under a giant tree whose bare branches soar into the Old Vic's cathedral-like space. (brace yourself for the symbolism, inluding a dead rooster in the final scene) The recent conversion to in-the-round seating is a great success - much better than when you were hardly within ear-shot, let alone sight, of the action if you were in the cheap seats.

Set in in rural Ireland in 1936, on the cusp of change, it's a portrait of five unmarried sisters, narrated in retrospect by the grown-up illegitimate son of the youngest. The action takes place over three weeks of the annual harvest festival, called Lughnasa. Rooted in a pagan tradition that has been all but eradicated by Christianity, the idea of dancing at Lughnasa is the dramatic equivalent of Chekhov's sisters' yearning for Moscow, ie it ain't gonna happen. By the end of the play the Welsh wastrel who fathered the love-child is off to fight with the International Brigade in Spain, the eldest sister has lost her school-teaching job and a local factory supercedes the hand-knitting that contributed to the household budget.

The strong ensemble acting reveals the mutual support and undertanding between the sisters. At the same time they are memorable as individuals. Niamh Cusack stands out as the determinedly-cheerful Maggie, reciting riddles, singing snatches of thirties radio tunes or leading her sisters in a manic dance around, and over, the kitchen table. Michelle Fairley as Kate strives to keep up the family standing in the small community, constantly threatened by the twin evils of intrusion and isolation.

Apart from the failed- salesman wastrel and the narrator, the other male role is that of Father Jack, an uncle sent back in disgrace from his mission in Uganda. His doomed attempts to reintegrate echo the loss-of-language theme explored in Friel's 'Translations'. Perhaps a tad robust for someone soon to die, his gentle confusion evokes sympathy for a key character. This is a subtle and complex play whose themes, embracing the effects of change and the meaning of religious rites, are held together by the playwright's marvellous command of language.

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