Dancing at Lughnasa

Brian Friel
Lyric Theatre, Belfast
(2007)

Those of us with memories which can stretch back to the first performance of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa, in the Abbey Theatre Dublin on the 24th April 1990, were enchanted to learn that the author himself would make it south from his beloved Ballybeg to watch over this new production directed by local boy made famous Mick Gordon, till lately of London's The Gate Theatre.

Even more intriguing was the news that Gerard McSorley, born like Friel in the market town of Omagh, who'd played Michael the boy/man storyteller in that first production, was to return to the play, this time as Father Jack, the priest who'd "gone native" ministering to the "Black Babies" who featured on the Church's missionary collection boxes in the not so distant past.

Friel's Lughnasa, as its film version featuring an embarrassingly miscast Meryl Street - plus a thousand amateur productions have confirmed, is easy to "do" horribly badly. Big women, in flowered housecoats "leppin" about a rusty kitchen range in hobnailed boots, with a local ego mugging it up as Father Jack, are far from Friel's vision of a world in which, as Geraldine FitzGerald's soon-to-be unemployed teacher Kate puts it, cracks are beginning to appear.

The off-stage pagan revival of dancing at Lughnasa signifies the break-up of the Catholic Church's sex-obsessed stranglehold over Ireland as does granduncle Jack's rustication from the Foreign Missions bearing a colonial governor's plumed hat, an arcane Titfer standing in for the impending break-up of empire, also telegraphed subtly in Rhydian Jones Jack-the-Lad departure to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Fragmenting too are the other old certainties of piecework for home knitters as the industrial age without a proper Welfare State comes to Donegal, a century late.

Gordon knows his Friel and so, while he's faithfully served by Ian Scott's plangent lighting, Ferdia Murphy's not overtly period kitchen which is set almost below the spreading bows of sycamore, and the sound team's syncronicity with the flawed magic of a Marconi wireless, he does not, as many have done before, back away from the author's ability to capture almost palpable aroma of women's suppressed sexuality. Neither does he, or Mairead McKinley's mentally disadvantaged Rose, run scared from the implications of inappropriate, but inevitable, lusts as Maggie sublimates through music-hall jokes, dance lyrics and Deborah Maguire's exhilaratingly perceptive choreography. Agnes's moral wrestling match is with her love-that-can not-speak-its-name for Chris's wayward Gerry and once less than plain Kate struggles via a weakening grip of the old decencies. Young Chris, by useful contrast, is presented as an unusually free from guilt, for the period, unmarried Irish Catholic mother.

Gerard McSorley flirts maybe a tad too much with his role's comic possibilities but then it must be hard to avoid doing so in an Ireland in which many of the audience still giggle at another nation's indigenous sexual customs, just as if half a century of the National Geographic's bare-breated dusky maidens were still tucked, well-thumbed, behind the kitchen dresser.

The Lyric is on a roll, one production after another, hitting highs on the try-your-artistic-strength cultural funfair machine that it hasn't aspired to in many a year.

So does this production have a fault? Well yes. For who's to explain what Sean Sloan's uptight, buttoned-up Michael is up to, coming on stage and telling us the tale of his family's, the Mundys, fragmentation. If he's addressing us, the audience, directly as he does, who are we? Do Gordon and Sloan see him as a Faith Healer at a gathering of Families Anonymous? This critic is mystified, so when, in the play's final speech, once he's passed the mantra at the core of all this master storyteller's dramas, the words that remind us that, as the French film director Alain Resnais did in L'Année Dernière à Marienbad, all memory is wilfully imperfect, many wished the curtain would fall before Sloan's speech tailed off into a now imperfect night.

Till July 7th

Ian Hill