Early in Lyndsey Turner’s production of Brian Friel’s Aristocrats, jaded brother-in-law Eamon (Emmet Kirwan) describes Ballybeg Hall, a run-down Irish manor, as a “house of reticence.” Despite its denomination, however, residents of the rotting Georgian pile do little except talk, generally to the exclusion of action, and certainly to the detriment of audience interest. Able performances cannot rescue a narratively flat, at times alienating, work.
The play opens in 1970s Ireland as the scattered O’Donnell siblings return to their ancestral seat for the wedding of their youngest sister, Claire (Aisling Loftus). Brother Casimir (David Dawson) regales a visiting academic (Paul Higgins) with tales of the writers, artists, and musicians who once flocked to the family’s parlour; the details of the stories, however, don’t bear scrutiny. Alcoholic Alice (Elaine Cassidy) and apparently bipolar Claire, a talented pianist whose dreams of a music career were quashed, drift in and out of the action, while put-upon eldest sister Judith (Eileen Walsh) struggles to keep the household together. The presence of their domineering father (James Laurenson) hovers over the siblings as they celebrate, quarrel, and reminisce.
Aristocrats is very much about the tyranny of the absent. Father, bedridden and suffering from dementia, continues to threaten his children via a speaker connected to microphones in his room. Though he is off-stage, the fear he inspires is palpable. The O’Donnells remember their mother, dead by suicide, and their sister Anna, who disappeared into a convent twenty years before. The greatest absence of all, however, is the glory of the past; the family, like its house, is all faded grandeur. Turner’s production is most effective when evoking the bareness and artificiality of the family’s existence. The set design is almost painfully minimalist, and the actors interact with a dollhouse as though it were Ballybeg itself. In a further act of meta-theatricality, a narrator intones the stage directions.
Friel is guilty of reliance on what I would call the Anthropologist Crutch, that is, the use of outsider or incongruous characters who either throw the family into relief, or whose enquiries about its history gradually reveal its inner workings and trauma. Higgins’s Professor Tom is a flat and undifferentiated plot device whose purpose is to uncover via questions conflicts that would be more interestingly examined through action. Event or incident is sorely wanting. While Friel attempts a Tennessee Williams-like sifting of pain from the detritus of banal conversation, his work lacks both Williams’s tonal complexity and his smoldering characters. The play’s women are underwritten, and verge on stereotype: the caregiver, the lush, and the innocent. Only Casimir and Eamon are fully developed, and Dawson and Kirwan give the production’s strongest performances. Dawson’s affectionate, but unstable brother is like a cracked vase; a thin veneer is all that’s holding him together.
Mentally ill characters often resist audience sympathy because of the paucity of interiority in theatre. Explaining one’s actions or thoughts on stage seems artificial, but without extemporizing, motivations and reasoning remain opaque. Friel’s crowd of emotionally bloodied, clinically unwell relatives is too much brokenness to manage. The characters are like flotsam circling a slow drain of dysfunction; by the time their ever-tightening spiral terminates at the emotional blockage, the audience has checked out. Even everyman Eamon comes undone when faced with the Hall’s probable demise: “To a peasant like me, a house like this is irresistible. That’s why we’re perfect for colonizing.” The story of the landed gentry’s role in suppressing the native population would be worth telling. I think I’d rather see that play.
- By Brian Friel
- Directed by Lyndsey Turner
- Cast Includes: Elaine Cassidy, David Dawson, David Ganly, Paul Higgins, Emmet Kirwan, Aisling Loftus, Eileen Walsh
- Donmar Warehouse
- Until 22 September 2018
- Time: 19:30 Mon-Sat; 14:30 Thu & Sat
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