Brian Friel’s first full-length play in eight years is his boldest attempt yet to meld the angry anti-colonialist and wistful Chekhovian sides of his playwriting personality, with mixed to positive results. There’s a lot of gorgeous writing here, some lovely moments of wry humor and a fascinating central character who, in Tom Courtenay’s masterful performance, embodies the ambiguities and sense of loss Friel appears to be aiming for. But overall what seems intended as tragedy comes across like melodrama, with Adrian Noble’s uneven production playing into the script’s weaknesses.
As in “Aristocrats” and “Dancing at Lughnasa,” Friel here skillfully turns the activity in an individual family home into a microcosm of the psychic and social violence wrought by colonization and its aftermath.
Play is set in 1878 at the beginning of the Irish Land War provoked by agricultural depression. Widower Christopher Gore (Courtenay) is a benign landowner who likes to think of his tenants as neighbors, and who is not too secretly in love with his housekeeper Margaret (Derbhle Crotty). She, in turn, loves Christopher’s son David (Hugh O’Conor), though that plot element is rendered implausible because both characters are underwritten, and because Crotty’s powerful stage presence totally overwhelms the reedy O’Conor, who looks about eight years her junior.
The action starts midway through the visit of Christopher’s anthropologist cousin Richard (Nick Dunning), who has come to Ireland to conduct field work for his ghastly (but historically credible) research project, which attempts to classify different races by their physical and psychological attributes.
The play reaches a faux denouement in a daring but ultimately unsuccessful central scene in which we see Richard and his bizarre henchman Perkins (Pat Kinevane) measuring the heads and pulling at the hair of grubby, abject villagers and commenting on their “nigresence.”
Friel is dealing with dangerous, powerful stuff here, the historic attempts to justify colonialism by classifying Irish and black populations as similarly subhuman. But things turn overwrought when the townsman Con (Adam Fergus), who has been involved in violence against landowners, bursts into the action and orders Christopher to send his cousin away.
Con has not been sufficiently developed as a character, and the overall stage atmosphere is too benign to make plausible the hairpin, treacherous shifts of authority and status Friel is trying to embody. Overwrought acting from much of the cast amidst an oddly tranquil atmosphere characterizes the evening overall.
Friel puts Christopher through an epic emotional wringer in the play’s final 20 minutes: Distressed by the experience of intimidation, and by his sense of betrayal and weakness at having yielded to pressure and dismissed Richard, he finally declares his love for Margaret only to have her turn him down, admit she loves David and offer to leave the household.
Crotty looks radiant and is emotionally very present throughout, but Friel really hasn’t given her a lot to work with: This is a man’s worshipful imagining of a woman, not a real woman herself.
Some fairly obvious Chekhov referencing ensues — David and Christopher wander around Peter McKintosh’s lovely forest setting, slapping whitewash crosses on the trees they are soon to cull — before Christopher breaks down completely in Margaret’s arms: “I’m shattered, Maggie, I’m in total confusion. I … don’t think I’m able to rise above any more.” Courtenay delivers this layered and complex material with enormous conviction and clarity, and this scene is, as a result, quite moving.
Equally moving is the sense left by this play that, well into his 70s, Friel continues to be deeply troubled by Ireland’s internal divisions and ongoing political strife, and continues to create stage stories in an attempt to find some kind of order and beauty amidst the darkness.