The first major London revival of “Dancing at Lughnasa” confirms the greatness of Brian Friel’s 1990 play, though Anna Mackmin’s fine production doesn’t always harness the anger and pain just beneath the action’s delicate surface. The two news-making elements of this production are the professional theater debut of pop singer Andrea Corr, which is unspectacular, and the in-the-round staging occasioned by the Old Vic’s recent revamp, which is just the opposite. Observing the action from all sides highlights the theme of tragic exposure established by Friel’s masterful layering of time periods in the text.
The play is a series of flashbacks narrated by thirtysomething Michael (Peter McDonald), looking back on the summer of 1936, when he was seven, living with his unmarried mother Chris (Corr) and her four sisters in rural Donegal.
There’s an initial strained intensity as McDonald paces the stage and speaks directly to the audience, but overall, Mackmin and the actor make effective use of the in-the-round staging. Michael is always visible surveilling the past action with sad fascination, stepping in when required to provide the disembodied voice of his much younger self.
As Michael acknowledges, memory is always unreliable, and the action, particularly in the first half, has a sepia-toned, romanticized quality. But the audience’s perception of the family’s difficulties becomes increasingly acute as Friel drip-feeds details. This is a household of poor, unmarriageable spinsters, whose reputation was sullied by Michael’s birth and by the ignominious return from Uganda that summer of eldest sibling and only brother Jack (Finbar Lynch), a missionary priest gone native.
The five actresses playing the sisters make a highly credible family unit; their speech rhythms and joking feel easy and unrehearsed. Petite, stock-straight and nun-like in a high-necked navy dress, Michelle Fairley is brilliantly convincing as eldest sister Kate, a schoolteacher trying desperately to keep the household together even as she realizes that “hair cracks are appearing everywhere, that control is slipping away … ”
Lynch’s portrayal of Jack is startlingly original. Not the bumbling old man of previous productions, he is bright-eyed, often cogent and frustrated when words escape him. This choice sharpens the play’s gender politics: Jack is the still-upright embodiment of the patriarchy, and it’s the women whose lives are hobbled by the shame his lapsed Catholicism brings to the family.
Some other roles feel miscast or occasionally overplayed. Though often persuasive, fragile-looking Niamh Cusack sometimes appears to be battling against type to put across Maggie’s extrovert joker personality, and Susan Lynch’s blinking tic as the bespectacled Agnes seems an unnecessary embellishment to an otherwise accomplished performance. Simone Kirby is quietly effective as Rose, who is developmentally disabled, as we are shown rather than told (thanks to Friel’s typically subtle writing).
Corr starts out strong as Chris and looks appropriately radiant, even sans apparent makeup, but when Michael’s n’er-do-well father Gerry (Jo Stone-Fewings, charming) appears, a strangely static quality overtakes her performance. Auds are forced to imagine for themselves the passion, guilt and confusion the character must be feeling.
The production assuredly rescues the play from the prettiness imposed on it by Patrick Mason’s original staging at Dublin’s Abbey Theater, which transferred to the West End and Broadway, winning Olivier and Tony awards for best play. Mackmin’s staging bravely and rightly shuns glamour (the excellent sets and costumes are by Lez Brotherston): dresses are appropriately sack-like, and lipsticks and blowdryers clearly have been banned from backstage.
But there remains a primal core to the piece that is only partly captured in the famous dancing scene, in which the sisters stomp and careen wildly around the house to music piped “all the way from Dublin” on their Marconi radio. At least on press night, the scene felt rushed-into, as if the actors were holding back from the uncontrolled, angry release of sexual energies the dance represents.
The play overall is a critique of the repression of Irish spiritual and cultural traditions by centuries of British colonialism. What’s eating away at Irish Catholic values — and this family — is the repression of pre-Christian pagan traditions, which burble up in rumored rituals going on “behind the back hills” and in the sisters’ here-not-ferocious-enough dance.
London critics have welcomed the production warmly and the spate of 4- and 5-star reviews, alongside high-profile above-the-title co-producers, presages a West End transfer, a welcome honor for the octogenarian playwright. It’s also yet another hairpin turn in the recent history of the Old Vic, from triumph (“The Norman Conquests,” opening on Broadway next month) to ignominy (the universally panned “Complicit,” which immediately preceded “Lughnasa”).