Michael McDonagh saw the Donmar revival of Brian Friel’s Aristocrats, his 1979 play about a changing Ireland
In the 19th Century as a result of the penal laws about 95 per cent of Irish land was owned by Protestant landlords, who occupied what were colloquially known as ‘The Big Houses’, those grand houses dotted all over Ireland built on vast country estates and lived in by the Anglo-Irish aristocracy.
They were seen as symbols of oppression and colonialism, even though not all the landlords were cruel or absent and many families did much for their tenants, especially at the time of the Potato Famine.
By 1979, when the play is set, most of these grand houses had fallen on hard times with the days of the Grand Balls, or tennis parties, long gone and just a few of the descendants hanging on to the leaking, draughty buildings and what remained of their much-reduced estates.
In this Donmar revival of Brian Friel’s Aristocrats Dr Tom Hoffnung, a character in the play, describes “the gripping saga of a family that lived its life in total isolation in a gaunt Georgian House on top of a hill above the remote village of Ballybeg in Donegal.”
Various members of this dysfunctional family return to the dilapidated house for a family wedding with their retired High Court judge father, an oppressive bully, confined to his sick bed upstairs. The Catholic O’Donnell family in the ‘Big House’ are neither accepted by the Protestant landed gentry or the local Catholic community in the nearby village.
They struggle to hold on to the house which they can’t really afford to maintain. Eamon (Emmett Kirwan) is a local lad whose mother once worked as one of the maids working at the house, is married to Alice, one of the daughters, and has greater affection for the house than his wife, whom he beats, or her family.
He suggests to Dr Tom that in place of his history thesis he should, instead, should write the Gothic novel Ballybeg Hall – from Supreme Court to Sausage Factory in Four Generations. A cruel reference to the fact that the High Court Judge’s son Casimir now lives in Germany and works in a sausage factory.
Alice (played by Elaine Cassidy) is physically and emotionally bruised and her character flops about the set in the summer heat languidly hitting the drink at every opportunity, holding forth on the various family issues and tensions that emerge in Chekov like dialogue of Brian Friel’s text.
There is the mute, almost motionless, Uncle George (played by Ciaran McIntyre) and the histrionic Casimir, (played with consummate energy and sparkling wit by David Dawson). The much put upon, emotionally wounded, Judith (played by Eileen Walsh who has a formidable theatrical CV) spends much of the play off stage cleaning up the incontinent, bedridden father and reveals the ‘dark secret’ of her illegitimate child at the end. This production is presented in a minimalist abstract pale blue box with the ‘Big House’ itself represented by a doll’s house.
This starts downstage and gradually ends upstage, assuming some kind of metaphor for the decline of the house and it fades into obscurity. Frankly this was a bit obtuse.
The only other visual element to the stark set is the plain painted back wall, where the mute Uncle George (Ciaran McIntyre) slowly peels back the paper to reveal a huge mural painting that shows the period house and landscape in its glory days. This seemed more like some art gallery installation than an integral part of a drama, an ambitious but flawed design decision.
This sparse and clinical set did not reflect in any way the “large and decaying house” described by Friel and actually worked against the original concept of the play.
By the second half, though, they seemed less constrained and were more settled into the rhythm of the action and dialogue which greatly improved the experience. After the dramatic climax events (no spoiler) the communal singing of the nostalgic song introduced a welcome and moving emotional element.
Unusually for a night at the Donmar and despite the valiant efforts of great actors I left the building feeling a little underwhelmed.