Dancing at Lughnasa

Dancing at Lughnasa is easily Brian Friel’s most widely known play thanks to the 1998 film version that starred Meryl Streep. But it’s the original 1990 play that here follows Friel’s Translations to be performed on the National Theatre’s Olivier stage.

A solid piece of theatre

If you’ve not seen the film, you may not know the story. If you’ve the seen the film, you still may not know the story. If you see this new production, well, you can probably guess.

With a Brian Friel play, storylines are never the priority.

Words and pictures.

Friel doesn’t write stories, he draws analogies. In place of plot, he creates atmosphere. His dexterity with words has them existing of themselves, rather than as the ingredients of speech. The written text often has less importance than the unwritten subtext and symbols.

You don’t see a Friel play to be entertained by a plot. You go to be stimulated by his literary prowess and to feel intelligent for so doing.

If that’s your thing, you’ve probably already booked tickets for this new production, directed by Josie Rourke. Former Artistic Director of both the Bush and Donmar, Rourke recently directed Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons. Central to that play is language. We can be sure Friel’s work is in safe hands.

For those who don’t get off on preparing for the post-show literary dissection, there’s plenty of visual stimulus. Robert Jones’ design maintains the intimacy of a one-set play that could easily be lost on the vast Olivier stage.

The kitchen setting is rich in exquisite detail wherever you look. Surrounding the house, a mass of countryside seems to stretch far off into the horizon. For the family here, it is both protection and exclusion from the outside world.

And there is a stellar ensemble cast, of whom half have been airlifted straight off the set of Channel 4’s Derry Girls. This working history must help with an interaction which feels truly familial, sharing looks and touches that makes their bond ring with truth.

A history play.

Friel summarised the play as being about “a family, a priest, my father, family life, make-believe, the past, betrayal, groping towards love.” Not overly succinct.

It’s autobiographical. Kinda. Friel was born in 1929 in a small Irish village. He spent many childhood summers with his mother and her four unmarried sisters, all of whom doted on him.

The year remains the same (1936 when the child is seven). The village becomes Ballybeg (from the Irish Baile Beag, meaning “Little Town”). The five sisters become the Mundys. And Friel becomes Michael who, as an adult, narrates a snapshot of one summer as he remembers it.

It’s widely referred to as a history play. Meaning the depiction of the time is as important as the telling of a story. Which suits Friel’s style. Think of it like looking through an old photo album that you find in the back of your grandparents’ attic.

The Mundy sisters joke, banter and argue. And, no spoiler, they dance. Which is symbolic of course.

The Irish Spice Girls.

Each sister comes with their own distinguishing character trait. Sort of like the Spice Girls. But Irish. And with different adjectives.

There’s Scary Mundy, Kate, played by Justine Mitchell, recreating the God-fearing, home keeper role she played in 2019’s Rutherford & Son (but swapping her Yorkshire for Irish).

Alison Oliver is Hopeful Mundy, Chris, lifted from her depression by the rare visits and empty promises made by Michael’s father, Gerry. Agnes (Louisa Harland) is Frustrated Mundy, suppressing lust for Gerry by knitting socks and playing mother to Baby Mundy, Rose. Rose has some “developmental disability” – tenderly portrayed by Blaithan Mac Gabhann – which gives her a naivety about the dangers of men.

Finally, there’s Wacky Mundy, Maggie, played by Siobhan McSweeney. An optimistic realist and strong of will, Maggie is the only sister able to overrule the matriarchal Kate. She is the peacemaker, always ready to douse tensions with a joke, a wink, a riddle, and some freshly baked soda bread. McSweeney’s Maggie is always-on, always playful, hinting at the zest for life she suppresses for fear its release would lead to crashing disappointment.

Individually the actors show depth of character that carries them from comedy to poignancy, with strength and vulnerability. No easy playing of victim here. And when together, the bond of sisterhood is more believable than any Spice Girl press junket.

What happens…?

Three things happen that summer. On paper at least.

First, Gerry pays a surprise visit. Twice. He talks of a new job and new plans. He makes new promises. He flirts with both sisters. He attempts to fix the radio.

His flightiness could disrupt the status quo ‘enjoyed’ by the Mundy sisters. But Tom Riley’s Gerry is a harmless loveable fool. Though ostensibly Welsh, he resembles a posh, camp, extra from Made in Chelsea.

Second, the sisters’ only brother has returned from Uganda where he was doing missionary work with lepers. Father Jack arrives confused and in poor health. But as his mind becomes clearer, so does his favouring for the paganist rituals of the Ugandan tribe. There are occasional glimpses of that Father Jack in Ardal O’Hanlon’s Father Jack, giving an innocence to his stories, unaware of the fear they hammer into his Catholic sisters.

Lastly, and arguably ultimately, is the arrival of Marconi, as the battery-operated radio is named. The radio gives sporadic bursts of music. It acts as a siren call to the young girls still alive but deeply hidden in the hearts of the grown sisters.

In other plays these would be the plot elements that lead to confrontation, truths uncovered, emotions displayed. Here, they just happen.

That’s not strictly true. Michael’s narration gives context, prologue, and epilogue: structure not shown in the play proper. Tellingly the poignant ending of the story is delivered before the ending of the play itself.

So, what is it all about?

Back to the original question: What is Dancing at Lughnasa about?

Stylistically, it is an illustration of memory from what psychologists call the “remembering self”, memories triggered by how we felt at a certain time, rather than the “experiencing self” which recollects the logistics of what we did.

Thematically, it centres around the idea of change. With relevance to the impact of change on the rural parts of 20th century Ireland. Everything in the play represents a change to the societal norm. Hence the themes of paganism, desire, sexual awakening and, as symbolised by the radio’s central position throughout, the impact of the industrial revolution.

That should give you enough for a quick soundbite if you’re caught in a lift with an unsufferable bore. Unless of course, you are the unsufferable bore.

A satisfying three hours.

This is a solid piece of theatre. The languid pace may cause drowsiness – especially by the end of a 90-minute first act – but it’s not like you’d miss any crucial plot points if you feel the need to rest your eyes for a spell.

The design is striking, the direction subtle, and the quality of performances sublime. I guarantee* that this National Theatre stint will turn out to be just the pre-West End transfer run. Seeing it is like luxuriating in a hot bath for an evening. It makes for a very satisfying three hours. But nothing you would remember well enough to describe in any detail afterwards.

(* Guarantee not legally binding!)

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The Blurb

The award winning drama from the writer of Translations.

Harvest time in County Donegal, 1936.

Outside the village of Ballybeg, the five Mundy sisters battle poverty to raise seven-year-old Michael and Care for their Uncle Jack.

During the Festival of Lughnasa, Pagan and Christian meet and collide. The sisters fight each other, love each other, dance, yearn and survive.

Brian Friel’s Olivier Award-winning play is an astonishing evocation of a family’s world on the brink of change.

Josie Rourke directs this striking Revival, with a cast including Siobhán McSweeney (Derry Girls), Ardal O’Hanlon (Father Ted) and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor (Translations).  

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