By John Dunne
TO mark Brian Friel’s eight-fifth birthday, Belfast’s Lyric Theatre is currently staging Philadelphia, Here I Come and Molly Sweeney until the beginning of March. Both plays also enjoy their own anniversaries with Philadelphia being fifty years old and Molly being a mere thirty-five.
Much is said about Philadelphia, placing it as a deserved classic and a theatrical tour de force in its own right. A play about emigration on the surface undercut by the lack of communication bubbling beneath that surface never fails to move the emotions. Having Gar, the protagonist, played by inner and outer characters was a device which marked the play out at the time and still stands the test of that time.
A play written fifty years ago about a young man planning to leave his rural Ireland home for the sparkle of the New World should be a period piece full of nostalgia and a warm glow. However, given the dire state of modern day Ireland, the plight affecting Gar is as real now as it ever was with a thousand young people leaving the country on a monthly basis. Modern emigrants may enjoy quicker and cheaper travel back to the old country supplemented by access to the internet, Facebook and Skype – but loneliness and separation is as real now as it ever was.
The play itself captures the sad poignancy of a family in quiet crisis with a taciturn father unable to speak to his son (and vice versa it must be said) to the brash bravado of Gar’s mates who could leave Ireland for better lives but won’t.
The verbal dexterity of Friel’s writing never fails to dazzle but equally does not distract from the frail humanity which unfolds slowly before our very eyes with moments of silence and stillness speaking volumes.
Much should be said about the superb acting, directing and set design which marks this Lyric production with class. The play slips effortlessly between central scenes with the two Gars to the numerous flashback scenes with other characters in the play.
Friel’s later and lesser known Molly Sweeney is quite a different play, consisting of three interlocking monologues. With a freely acknowledged nod towards Synge’s Well of the Saints, the play concerns itself with Molly, blind from the age of six months, and the consequence of regaining her sight.
Molly is an elegant play, which succeeds due to the understated portrayal by its cast of three (Frankie McCafferty, Ruairi Conaghan and Dorothy Duffy as Molly). Although the play centres on Molly and acting credits being shared among the three cast members, I have to admit to finding Frankie McCafferty’s Mr Rice the more engaging and complex.
The set design by Signe Beckmann is dominated by a large tree which Molly finally climbs when she wants to retreat to her own world – a device also used Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa. There is also an interesting programme note concerning the use of the words auditorium and audience, each word resonating with the audio or space for listening – the world of the unsighted. Indeed, the play could well be ‘watched’ with the eyes closed and raises questions about being able/ unable to see.
Comparing the two plays would be unfair, as Philadelphia is a comparative sprawl of a drama whereas Molly is more contained and restrained. Philadelphia is also the better known play which brings its own expectations whereas Molly is a more intertwined piece which covers more philosophical matters, which is hardly surprising given that Friel was better at the old writing game
Philadelphia, Here I Come runs until 9th March and Molly Sweeney runs until 8th March then tours across Northern Ireland.