Saturday, July 5, 2014

Abbey Theatre, 'Aristocrats': The Big House

As the walls of Ballybeg Hall crumble in Patrick Mason's staging, you find yourself strangely unsympathetic. 

Abbey Theatre
Jun 24-Aug 2

My review of Aristocrats by Brian Friel coming up just as soon as I recognise the McCormack waltz ...

Brian Friel has always had the astute ability to show people on the isle of Ireland where they have come from. Steady emigration to the U.S. in the 20th century can be attributed to that irreconcilable social reality that literally split the Irish psyche in two in 1964 tragicomedy Philadelphia, Here I Come!Translations, against the backdrop of the Troubles in the 1980s, was a revelatory revisiting of the 1830s and the British Army's remapping of the Irish landscape. Both works inform a greater sense of our present but also a sad reminder of what we we had to leave behind. The latter doesn't figure into Patrick Mason's staging of Aristocrats for the Abbey Theatre.    

This is Friel's answer to Chekov's The Cherry Orchard, and while the idea of the Catholic Big House may be self-mythologising and imaginary as mired son Caisimir lets slip, you'd still wish it's decline was elegiac. As the walls of Ballybeg Hall crumble in this production, you find yourself strangely unsympathetic.

Aristocrats presents the O'Donnells - an upper-class family in Donegal with a history boasting four generations of High Court Judges and receiving visiting luminaries such as Yeats and Hopkins. Inside a majestic house, a tyrant father is bedridden upstairs but his voice rings through the halls via an intercom, freezing his children: failed solicitor Caisimir, neglected artist Claire, repenting Judith, alcoholic Alice and her barbed husband Eamon. Gathered for a wedding, eventually they're attending a funeral. 

With so many character arcs, Mason has to move a lot of furniture but the finer subtleties of an oppressed family aren't realised. Its drama is low-key so it might have benefited from a more naturalistic mode of acting. Tadgh Murphy has Caismir patter with that same anachronistic movement he used as Lucky in Gare St Lazare Players' Waiting for Godot last year, whereas a more straight approach (his heartbreaking performance in Penelope comes to mind) would have made him more credible. Similarly, Rebecca O'Mara's squawks as drunk Alice and her ensuing stares of severity are too great. Cathy Belton hits the note perfectly as Judith, though unfortunately she has less stage time than most of the cast. 

As concerns turn to the future of Ballybeg Hall, Francis O'Connor's set is too beautiful for us to believe in any damage or decline to its structure, though Sinéad's ghostly lighting and clippings of helicopter blades in Denis Clohessy's sound design attempt to unsettle its decor. 

Too much heavy handedness makes this an Aristocrats that isn't liberating or tragic. Taking on new roles by the end, the O'Donnells seem to turn a blind eye to the fact that their family has played no significant role in Irish history whatsoever, a discovery that should be devastating.  

What did everybody else think?

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