Saturday, September 05, 2015

Dancing at Lughnasa – a community on the cusp of catastrophic change (Lyric Theatre until 27 September)

I love the sparse set Paul O’Mahony created for Dancing at Lughnasa. A huge cracked mirror covered in gauze hangs at an angle over the pallid kitchen set, reflecting the action as Michael reaches back into his memories of life as a seven year old in the Ballybeg house with his mother Christina and his four aunts in the summer of 1936.

The industrial revolution with its catastrophic impact on manual labour is just around the corner. Marconi’s newfangled radio set is bringing new tunes and new ideas into Donegal. There are troubling rumours about divination at the Lughnasa bonfires burned for the recent feast day for the harvest, and together with a Catholic priest’s abandonment of traditional rituals and practices, Brian Friel’s 1990 play Dancing At Lughnasa foretells Ireland’s future loss of faith in the Catholic church.

The five sisters spend much of their time in the kitchen: knitting, cooking, ironing, chatting, and even mixing cement. At times young “love child” Michael is mollycoddled by his coterie of aunts, yet his creative attempts to build a kite are somewhat disparaged.

Father Jack – their infirm older brother – is home on furlough from his missionary work with lepers in Uganda: his blend of Catholicism and increasing Paganism came to the negative attention of those further up the church hierarchy. Declan Conlon captures so well the illness wrapped up in jolly eccentricity and ambiguous sexuality.

While the five actresses are clearly invested in their roles, the lack of any attempt to standardise on a Ballybeg accent leaves them collectively unconvincing as blood sisters who have supposedly lived under the same roof for 30 years.
  • Rose (Mary Murray) has learning difficulties and it is uncomfortable to watch this vulnerable adult being played for laughs in the Lyric’s staging of Friel’s work.
  • Christina (Vanessa Emme) is bewitched by the intermittent and “poisonous” appearances of her Welsh lover Gerry Evans who is portrayed as more Cockney than Taffy by talented song and dance man Matt Tait.
  • Agnes (Catherine Cusack) is straight and old-fashioned, yet clearly has an eye for Gerry. She spends her days cooking and knitting gloves for sale.
  • Kate (Catherine McCormack) is the eldest and most bossy sister. A devout Catholic and a local teacher, she has taught half the neighbourhood and tries to uphold the moral backbone of the house.
  • Maggie (Cara Kelly) stands out as the character your eye doesn’t want to leave, bringing an energy to the fatherless household and is the ringleader in the bewitching eponymous dance.
“Much as we cherish local children in Ballybeg, they’re not the norm” [Kate]
The household action is bookended and interrupted by Michael’s narration, causing the actresses to freeze or slow down their movements.

While it’s a memory play and narration is part of the genre, Charlie Bonner’s delivery felt flat and failed to bring all of Brian Friel’s treasured words to life.

Towards the end of the first half, adult Michael skips ahead of the main drama and reveals all the remaining significant plot points – no fault of the actor – rather undermining any tension that might have been built after the interval as the harvest sown by the sisters is tragically reaped.

While the heavy reliance on Michael’s narration is unavoidable without butchering the original text, Annabelle Comyn’s direction adds space to parts of the production, allowing the dialogue to disappear while the sisters just go about their knitting and tidying up in the kitchen.

Overall, it’s a long performance, just shy of two and three quarter hours including the twenty minute interval.

Dancing at Lughnasa was clearly a much loved play for many in the Lyric Theatre audience on the night that I attended, and the drama remains on the local English Literature curriculum. Opinion was quite divided amongst audience members I spoke to. However, in terms of the script and the direction, for me Dancing at Lughnasa was a disappointment and didn’t live up to the hype. This may mark me out as a theatrical barbarian!

Hats off to the Lyric and the Lughnasa International Friel Festival organisers for ‘doing a MAC’ and handing out Maggie’s childhood school lunch (tasty soda bread, bilberry jam and a slice of cheese) during the interval.

Largely tragedy with a few comic moments, you can catch Dancing at Lughnasa at the Lyric Theatre until 27 September and judge it for yourself.

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