“It is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language” (Brian Friel). In this new production of Brian Friel’s classic play, Aristocrats, the Donmar Warehouse reminds its audience of Friel’s investigation into our relationship with the past and what it means to be identified by our heritage and upbringing. Aristocrats explores a family in 1970s Ireland who have gathered at their family home, a ‘Big House’ that appears not to fit into the typical demographic of Protestant or Catholic pedigree. It is a charismatic example of Friel’s longing to expose the outsider and question their role in society in terms of class, position and tradition.
The production displayed to its audience a minimal set, with the actors remaining on stage for the duration of the piece and using few props and locations. This appears to be the Donmar’s way of asking it’s audience to use their imagination and create a sense of ambivalence around the legitimacy of the events. It is, after all, referred to on multiple occasions that Casimir’s wife is believed to be invented and that even a simple game of croquet becomes a farce, as the characters leap about the stage miming mallets and balls. The focus here is on Friel’s connection relationship with image, presentation and belief – a direction the Donmar displayed with great effect.
The audience are encouraged to examine the characters relationships with both themselves and their families past. This motif is backgrounded by the oldest character in the play – Uncle George (Ciaran McIntyre). Uncle George rarely entered the main acting space and when he did, he was a mute character. However, Uncle George is positioned at the back of the stage ripping off the wallpaper. This seems peculiar at first, but it eventually reveals that George is removing the new, bright green wallpaper and is uncovering an enormous painting of what the house once looked like or, more importantly, what the image of the house is intended to be. The slow revelation of this image is captivating and enhances the storytelling from the rest of the cast.
Whilst Friel’s messages have been made very clear, the person heavy presence on stage meant the piece relied overly on the dialogue. The audience, therefore, required engaging characters and interesting relationships to keep the play moving. Although there were some excellent performances (notedly David Dawson as Casimir and Eileen Walsh as Judith), the piece struggled to maintain its energy and lacked a driving force that went deeper than Friel’s subtext. A doll’s house was placed on the stage and represented the main house the family were in, however, this image became tired and didn’t hold the grandeur needed to be fully immersed in these characters lives. It needed more in order to successfully bring this play into the now.
The strongest moment of the play came when, at the end of the first half, Father (James Laurenson) abrasively stumbles onto the stage in a state of panic and confusion, breaks through the faux-fantasy of a garden picnic and smashes both the audience and the characters back into a harsh reality. If only the production had taken this moment as a benchmark and continued to offer the audience a confrontation of Friel’s text as opposed to an interpretation of one idea. An interesting production for fans of Friel, but more ideas needed to push the boundaries for a modern audience.
Review by James Ecans
Ballybeg Hall once played host to grand balls, musical evenings, tennis parties: its rooms busy, bursting with painters, poets and politicians. And presiding over all of it, the imposing figure of Judge O’Donnell.
Now, on the eve of a wedding, the O’Donnell children return to their ancestral home to find that the rot has set in.
Lyndsey Turner returns to the Donmar following Faith Healer and Philadelphia, Here I Come! to direct Brian Friel’s haunting play about a generation whose past threatens to obliterate its future.
Cast includes Elaine Cassidy, David Dawson, David Ganly, Paul Higgins, Emmet Kirwan, James Laurenson, Aisling Loftus, Ciaran McIntyre and Eileen Walsh.
By Brian Friel
Director Lyndsey Turner
Designer Es Devlin
Lighting Designer Paule Constable
Sound Designer Christopher Shutt
Composer Alex Baranowski
Movement Director Jonathan Watkins
Donmar Warehouse – Principal Sponsor BARCLAYS
2 August 2018 – 22 September 2018
by Brian Friel
41 Earlham Street
London WC2H 9LX