Admirers of “Three Sisters” will respond doubly strongly to the new National Theater revival of Brian Friel’s “Aristocrats,” the 1979 play that seems to have absorbed Chekhov’s tragicomedy into every telling, flickering change of mood. The production is enhanced by a director, Tom Cairns, who experiments with space, tempo and time in a way last seen at this address two summers ago when Katie Mitchell directed, yes, “Three Sisters.” Auds resistant to leisurely accretion of detail and affect will likely be put off, but everyone else will be enthralled.
Cairns is a directorial choice out of left field for a.d. Nicholas Hytner’s National, and a highly welcome one, too. He has distinguished himself via an individualistic career encompassing the Almeida, the Old Vic, opera and the Crucible, Sheffield, where his unique embrace of the spatial tension inherent in theater at first became clear.
Working here, as usual, as his own set and costume designer, Cairns places Friel’s gentle study of familial waste and decay amid a high-walled set bisected into two playing spaces. These bleed into one another mysteriously (and beautifully) while the trompe l’oeil effects to stage left lend just the right amount of forced perspective. Bruno Poet’s shimmering lighting completes the picture.
Does the design make literal sense? Not really, but it’s boldly evocative of the limbo in which this Ballybeg family exists, their sense of insignificance heightened by the sheer weight of air around them. And it’s enough of this world and also not to dovetail with a story whose central character, Casimir (Andrew Scott, in a career-making perf), is the most self-harming sort of fantasist — a man in so deep it’s not entirely clear he realizes he is lying even to himself.
Casimir is a terrific role, and some may remember Niall Buggy stilling the heart when “Aristocrats” last hit London, and then New York, 17 years ago. Scott is altogether different, his bravery of a piece with a staging unafraid to risk embarrassment in search of the devastation often accompanying the most grievous honesty and truth. At first, Scott seems to be all tics; his eyes look nervously away with the same apparently involuntary reflexes of his siblings as they refuse to answer questions on topics (like death) that they cannot address.
But beneath the presumed mannerisms lies a sense of loss embedded deep. While Casimir is quick to exalt the wife and children he left behind in Germany (and who, after a while, we begin to think have been wholly invented), he is noticeably tight-lipped about the death of his own mother and the ongoing rantings of his father (TP McKenna), a cranky judge who lies upstairs dying, heard but largely unseen. Casimir is the anguished heart of “Aristocrats,” and Scott brings unusual animation to the role.
“Aristocrats” doesn’t have the political dimension of Friel’s concurrent West End entry, “The Home Place,” the 76-year-old Irishman’s latest play, but it exists at an astonishing flash point for this writer, who within the space of 18 months would write this, “Faith Healer” and “Translations,” each a major work. The elegiac tone this go-round has less to do with cultural dispossession and more to do with human selves gradually realizing to various degrees that they are helpless.
Or maybe not so helpless. As acted by Gina McKee, whose elongated face looks perfectly proportioned to play oldest sister Judith (she’s this play’s resident Olga, from “Three Sisters”), at least someone in the family has a clear-eyed, selfless capacity for life that just may see her through.
That’s more than can be said for youngest sister Claire (Marcella Plunkett), the Chopin-playing depressive whose imminent marriage sounds like a disaster-in-the-making. Or London-based Alice (a lovely perf from TV name Dervla Kirwin), who has arrived back at the family manse, her truth-telling husband, Eamon (Peter McDonald, in characteristically fine form) in volatile tow.
Some of Friel’s plotting thuds a bit. In order to facilitate the exposition, we have a visiting American academic, Tom Hoffnung (Stephen Boxer), who outlives both his usefulness and also sheer plausibility: Why would a brood so focused on bereavement as this one turns out to be allow an outsider to further drain an already scorched landscape?
The answer might lie in a play about loving people who simply don’t look beyond themselves — or when they do, recoil much like Casimir, a man-boy in seemingly constant need of cradling. What solace as there is resides in the possibility for companionship and, as is often the case with Friel, in song. As Eamon leads the others in a gently wounding melody like some floppy-haired Feste, a quiet play fades out on an intense note of palpable heartache, these “aristocrats” so many lost souls in search of a home.