Sunday 3 May 2009

Dancing at Lughnasa, by Brian Friel at the Old Vic (dir. Anna Mackmin), until May 9th 2009

Now in the last week of its run at the Old Vic in London, this production of Brian Friel's beautiful play Dancing at Lughnasa (pronouced Loooo-Na-Saa, for the non-pagans) can only be described as a remarkable triumph. The play is told in flash-back sequences by the young Michael Evans, who remembers his childhood in a rural Donegal house of five women. The women have just welcomed back Uncle Jack, a missionary priest for a lifetime in Uganda, who has returned in a state of confusion. His gradual recuperation, and the realization that Jack has been sent back from his parish for becoming more native than the natives themselves, is traced out against the backdrop of the annual Lughnasa festivals, especially the harvest dance. The women desperately want to go, and in a carefree moment of delight resolve to go, dancing around the kitchen in ecstatic excitement. Kate (Michelle Fairley), the eldest sister, the only one with a steady income as the local schoolteacher, has a change of heart and insists it would be improper for women of their age to be seen at such an event. And the chance of something fun and wonderful evaporates. And all that is wonderful (in the sense of being full of wonder) evaporates throughout the rest of the play.

The women desperately want to get away, and this yearning is palpable throughout. But responsibility is important too, and Christina, who has had Michael out of wedlock, takes a job in the local factory to earn an income and hates every day of it for the rest of her life. Rose and Agnes go off to England and die there, destitute. This is recounted in a truly heartbreaking moment by Michael, in what is a masterpiece of understated acting by Peter McDonald. The rest of the cast are extremely strong. Niamh Cusack plays Maggie with wonderful sensitivity, and Andrea Corr, playing Chris, is really excellent. There are moments in the play where it was clear that her tears were not acted. (I say this as I was blubbering myself!). The set design is super too, as it is part of the Old Vic's experiment with theatre in the round. The result allows for all sorts of interesting things, such as Michael's continual circling of the kitchen space, watching the sisters and what's happening to them. It adds to the poignancy of his memories as an adult.

Dancing at Lughnasa is a great great modern play, and this is a great production. GO TO SEE IT if you can.


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