Brian Friel's Classic Portrait of his Mother and Aunts
“You work hard at your job, you try to keep the home together but suddenly you realize that cracks are formin’ everywhere. It’s all about to collapse, Maggie. “
Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa may be his masterpiece but for me it is a toss up with Faith Healer. Both plays have a poetic base and in Dancing at Lughnasa, it is the beautiful introductory and the closing speeches from Michael (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) as a grown man, looking back on 1936 when he was a seven year old child in Donegal near the fictional town of Ballybeg.
Dancing at Lughnasa is essentially a biographical play for Brian Friel about his mother and her sisters and his memories of them in rural Ireland. Kate (Justine Mitchell) is the serious schoolteacher whose income keeps the family, Maggie (Siobhán McSweeney) runs the house, Agnes (Louisa Harland) and special needs Rose (Bláithín Mac Gabhann) are out workers hand knitting gloves and Chris (Alison Oliver) is Michael’s single mother. Friel’s play is about the change in society as industrialisation comes to this part of Ireland with Catholicism and Paganism the religious influences on the people.
Returning to the family home is the Mundy women’s brother, the pride of the family a priest, Father Jack (Ardal O’Hanlon) who has come home in ill health with malaria after being a missionary in Uganda in an area full of leprosy for many years. He has been such a long time in Africa, his religious memories are part Christian and part tribal. His memory may also be failing.
As he relates killing roosters and face painting and dancing for days on end, we are never sure whether he has become mentally Africanised or whether he is deluded from malarial fever. His defence of the love child is more African than European. This parallels with the sisters talking about the Celtic Feast of Lughnasa in Ireland, an ancient Pagan harvest festival of crazy dancing round a bonfire dedicated to Lugh the ancient god of light.
The radio, when it kicks into life, is a signal for the sisters to break into dance choreographed joyfully by Wayne McGregor as they forget all their troubles to dance. Even strait-laced Kate will join them with her restrained Irish dancing, arms flat to her sides and kicking from the knees.
Robert Jones’ set is idyllic. A bead curtain hangs implying that rain is falling and we can see a large tree close by. A curved path winds through the grass and peat to the Mundys’ kitchen with its solid oak dining table, chairs and dresser. To the rear are mountains and a blue sky and bracken lined scrub.
Another arrival at the Mundy house is Gerry Evans (Tom Riley) the father of Chrissie’s son Michael. Gerry’s latesst career development is as a gramophone salesman but he is feckless and unreliable although Chrissie is obviously still in love with him.
As the radio symbolises a modern world that is about to descend on rural Ireland, so we hear that a factory will replace the home knitters but there is no place for Rose and Agnes. After Rose meets a boy at Lughnasa known for its trial marriages, the family search for her because they cannot cope with another scandal and Rose is very vulnerable. Rose and Agnes run away to a life of destitution in London. Chrissie, we are told by Michael, will spend the rest of her life as a worker in that knitwear factory.
While Josie Rourke’s production has much to amuse, I can’t get out of my head the Dancing at Lughnasa I saw in 2009 at the Old Vic with Niamh Cusack as Maggie. Siobhán McSweeney is a larger than life personality and with her comedic dialogue she makes us laugh again and again as Maggie but I feel she turns the Mundy sisters into the Siobhán McSweeney show. Justine Mitchell as Kate can compete but Agnes, Rose and Chrissie are diminished by comparison.
Dancing at Lughnasa
Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Josie Rourke
Bláithín Mac Gabhann
Director: Josie Rourke
Designer: Robert Jones
Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson
Sound Designer: Emma Laxton
Composer: Hannah Peel
Choreographer: Wayne McGregor
Running Time: Two hours 45 minutes with an interval
Booking to 18th June 2023
London SE1 9PX
Tube/Rail : Waterloo
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge
at the Olivier Theatre on 21st April 2023